The conversation about plastic tends to revolve around how plastic pollution clogs our oceans and waterways. From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to that harrowing image of a plastic straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose that sparked the #NoStrawPlease campaign, most of us are all too familiar with the havoc plastic can wreak. But all of this is really just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg – in reality the connection between plastic and environmental harm extends far beyond plastic debris.
Mind you, we don’t want to understate the debris issue. Plastic debris in fact leaches chemicals into our natural world (not to mention into that plastic water bottle you left in your car on a hot day), and decreases biodiversity by confusing animals who think it is food and consequently suffer from malnutrition and/ or an outright overconsumption of plastic. However, the harms of plastic don’t stop there.
Plastic Production Emits A LOT of Greenhouse Gases
Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, which means that even before that piece of plastic ends up in the ocean, greenhouse gases were emitted to not only extract the fossil fuel, but to transport it and refine it into plastic. The plastic lifecycle (fossil fuel extraction → plastic manufacturing → item disposal) is causing levels of greenhouse gas emissions that are threatening our ability to keep global temperature rise below 2°C (Source: Center for International Environmental Law). Coupled with industrial incineration, plastic production adds nearly the same amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year as 190 500-megawatt coal plants (Source: GreenBiz). As such, it should be clear that the plastic pollution problem is also a climate change problem.
In Order to Make Plastic, You Need Land
Similar to factory farming, the extraction of fossil fuels requires land clearing. When an oil pipeline is built, each mile of it must be surrounded by a “right of way” zone of cleared land. About 19.2 million acres of land in the U.S. have been cleared for oil and gas development. Assuming just a third of this land is forested, we can estimate that approximately 1.686 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide were released during the land clearing process (Source: Yale Climate Connections). This land clearing also entails significant habitat loss for a variety of animals, and ultimately leads to further loss of biodiversity beyond that already resulting from climate change and plastic debris.
Fossil Fuel Extraction is Unjust
In addition to all of its global climate issues, plastic production poses a social and ethical dilemma. Most of us are familiar with the process of fracking, but we are not as aware of a subsequent process called “cracking” in which ethane gas produced during fracking is converted to ethylene, which is then used to make polyethylene plastic. More than $180 billion has been allocated over the next 10 years to build 263 new “cracking” facilities along the Gulf Coast and in the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast (Source: 5 Gyres Institute). So while it seems that the plastic pollution crisis is getting a lot of attention and that the underlying problem must be getting better, the reality is that fossil fuel companies are looking to the plastics industry to help compensate for the profits they’re losing from the world’s transition towards clean energy in other areas of the economy.
The regions where these cracker facilities are being built, such as in the Gulf Coast, are not only vulnerable to the extreme weather patterns connected to global warming, they are also in close proximity to low-income communities and communities of color. As abhorrent as this already sounds, there’s a strong correlation between the presence of these plastic producing, petrochemical facilities and a spike in cancer cases. The correlation is so strong that an area in Louisiana where many refineries and other plants are located has come to be known as “Cancer Alley” (Source: United Nations).
With a growing list of negative impacts and plastic/ climate change correlations, we all know there has to be a better way. Each individual has the power to mitigate the harmful effects of the plastic lifecycle by limiting our consumption of plastic, swapping out single-use items for reusables, fostering the transition to zero-waste lifestyles, and voting with our dollars. Voting with your actual votes is immensely important as well because the fact remains that some politicians recognize the threat plastics and fossil fuels pose to civilization itself, and others refuse to go against their corporate donors. And remember that one of the most environmentally friendly things you can do is use what you have. Don’t toss your plastic items – just for being plastic – if they are still usable. For instance, if you still have Ziplocks on hand from your pre-plastic-free days, use those plastic baggies until you can’t anymore, and then replace them with plastic free, zero waste alternatives.