Single-use plastic waste is its own out-of-control crisis that has fouled our oceans and natural spaces for centuries to come. Global heating has been working invisibly to fundamentally restructure our climate and change the way our weather patterns organize and impact our societies. Rarely do we talk about them in the same breath– or news story, but it’s time we shine a brighter light on how plastic exacerbates climate change.
Almost all the plastic produced each year is derived from fossil fuels – both as its base material, and to power the factory process that creates it. The easiest form of fuel to use is natural gas, which is cheap and abundant in many parts of the world, and why the low-cost plastic it produces is pricing out recycled versions that are a bit more expensive to process. Natural gas – also known as methane – is split into two natural gas liquids called ethane and propane. These are sent to refineries where the ethane is turned in ethylene and the propane is turned in propylene.
From there the ethylene can be turned into polyethylene, the most common form of single-use plastic used to make varieties that we know by their recycling numbers 1, 2, and 4. The propylene is turned into polypropylene which you know as plastic #5– one of the most common plastic materials used for food containers.
Be aware, there are many other chemicals involved in this transformation, most of which are derived from fossil fuels that require even more drilling, pumping, and chemical processing – all energy-intensive. About 8-10% of global fossil fuel production goes to supply plastic manufacturing, and methane is difficult to extract without significant leaks and losses. It’s estimated that for every ton pulled from the ground, another 50% escapes into the atmosphere. As methane is about 23-28 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas – and it remains in the atmosphere for 10-12 years before breaking down in a natural process that’s protected us for eons – just not from such an onslaught of methane supply.
It’s all very mathematical, right, but how does that work out in real-world situations? Let’s take one small example: plastic shopping bags. The average American throws away 10 plastic shopping bags per week or 520 per year. That’s a total of 100 billion bags annually for the whole country. The energy used to make 14 bags is equal to what a car uses to travel one mile. The 520 bags we each throw away per year equals 60 miles of driving. The total impact of those 100 billion tossed-out bags equals 7.14 billion miles of driving. And that’s just plastic bags.
It’s hard for individuals to mentally track the unique impacts of little habits like tossing out a shopping bag, tossing out a coffee cup, a sandwich clamshell, a dry cleaning cover, a few straws, a box of cookies, a bottle of juice, and on and on. The opportunities for people to overconsume single-use plastic are everywhere, all the time. And this is leading all of us to have a larger carbon footprint than we might otherwise think, especially since many of us go to great pains to live mindfully.
One important thing we can all do is calculate our household carbon footprint to get a better understanding of our own baseline contribution to the climate crisis and the over-consumption of single-use plastic. Your results may surprise you.
I took the test and was surprised by my own results, despite having solar panels on my roof, electric cars in the garage, and a battery of other practices to limit our impact. The reason for my high score has a lot to do with how our economy is structured around fossil fuels, disposable products, wasteful food practices, and a barrage of other structural problems that exacerbate our challenges.
My per capita share of that systemic crisis bumps up my overall score, so no matter how hard I try it’ll be many more years before I can feel comfortable that my impact is truly declining. That’s why it’s so important that everyone does their small part in reversing the use of single-use plastic at every opportunity.
If you want to calculate your own impact you should check out the free calculator on the 8 Billion Trees website. The whole thing takes under a minute and the questions explore specific habits and practices that really pin down your household footprint. A feature I appreciated was a meter that let me know how many trees I’d need to plant each year to offset my annual carbon impact.
Everything is interconnected. Single-use plastic waste may pose a more visible threat as trash in our ecosystems, but its role in exacerbating climate change and the habitability of our planet is equally clear. Fortunately, solving the first part of the problem by eliminating single-use plastic from as many aspects of your life as possible will impact global warming as well, and help us all stop contributing to the behaviors most directly responsible for harming our world.