The Link Between Fossil Fuels, Single-Use Plastics and Climate Change
By Katie Day and Trent Hodges
When we think of plastic pollution, we think of images of plastic bags on the beach, suffering marine life and the almost invisible smog of microplastics in our ocean. What often gets overlooked is the fact that conventional plastic is made from fossil fuels, and is a product of the oil and gas industry.
Traditionally made from petroleum byproducts, plastic in the U.S. is now most commonly sourced from the nation's production of "abundant and affordable" natural gas. Natural gas liquids (NGLs) ethane and propane get extracted and sent to a "cracking facility" where ethane is made into ethylene (the foundation of polyethylene—the most common plastic in the world, frequently used for packaging, bottles and synthetic clothing), and at a dehydrogenation plant, propane is made into propylene (the foundation of polypropylene—a plastic commonly found in food packaging and vehicle manufacturing).
"The reason is simple: because of shale gas, it is more cost effective to produce ethylene in U.S. than just about anywhere else in the world."
— Excerpt from American Chemistry Council
The U.S. natural gas boom has made plastic feedstocks really cheap and readily available. An estimated $50 billion will be invested into new and expanded U.S. plastic production facilities, increasing production by roughly 50 percent in the next 10 years, and tripling the amount of plastic exports by 2030! That includes 400 new plastic processing facilities, in addition to plastic manufacturing facilities and plastic additive processing facilities, which can produce some significantly harmful chemicals including pthalates and brominated flame retardants.
In fact, in the U.S. alone, producers of polyethylene are expecting to increase production capacity by as much as 75 percent by 2022. Industry explains that this increase of production is fueled by expected increases in demand for disposable plastics, such as soft drinks and packaging, by millennials in developed countries, and growing consumer markets in developing countries. This means that much of the U.S. manufactured plastics are planning to be exported to developing countries, where waste management services may not be properly equipped to handle current, let alone a surge in non-biodegradable solid waste.
This is disheartening news, but just as the proposal for offshore oil drilling off the U.S. ignores the fact that the world is moving towards renewable energy, the plastics industry fails to recognize the proliferation of social and political changes such as bag bans, foam bans and society's refusal to accept an inundation of single-use plastic.
The movement to reduce single-use plastic pollution has gone global. At the local level, cities across the U.S. have banned and restricted the unregulated use of wasteful single-use plastics, fueled by campaigns that Surfrider chapters and passionate communities have fought for. On the international side, in January 2018, the European Commission announced a Europe-wide strategy to reduce plastic pollution and ensure that all plastic in Europe is recyclable by 2030.
Even the UN Environment Program has taken a strong stance against plastic pollution, and started a global campaign to reduce marine debris from microplastics and single use plastics by 2022. Though none of these actions alone signal an end to single-use plastics, they do show the increased resistance among cities, nations and the international community to reject products that are used once and thrown away to the detriment of our waters, land and wildlife.
Plastic pollution is an issue that demands worldwide cooperation, similar to climate change, as they are two sides of the same coin. As a product of extracting and refining fossil fuels for energy, the amount of plastic produced is influenced by the demand for and production of oil and gas. Industry analyses find that the production of plastics from fossil fuel is only cost effective when the components not used for plastics are used for energy production, treating plastic more as a byproduct of the industry. Therefore, if we transition away from fossil fuels, and towards renewable energy and a healthy climate, we also encourage industry to transition away from producing wasteful single-use plastics.
"Plastics manufacturers assume demand for disposable plastics will continue to rise, despite evidence that global awareness of plastic pollution is growing and cultural attitudes are changing. Industry investments reflect a further underlying assumption that supplies of cheap hydrocarbons will remain the norm for decades to come, even as the global community has begun to phase out the very fossil fuels upon which plastics producers depend."
— Excerpt from Center for International and Environmental Law
This makes the fight against single-use plastic pollution more compelling and holistic, realizing that good choices in renewable energy and climate friendly decisions may also help reduce single-use plastic production and pollution, and vice versa.
We need your help to reduce the consumption of single use plastics and fossil fuels!
- Support bans on harmful single-use products through local campaigns.
- Support Ocean Friendly Restaurants and local businesses that avoid plastic waste while spreading awareness of the issue.
- Reduce your reliance on greenhouse gas emissions by driving less, investing in high-efficiency lighting and appliances, and buying locally.
- Adopt a single-use plastic free lifestyle by investing in reusable cups and cutlery, purchasing loose produce instead of packaged produce, and saying no to plastic straws, bags, bottles, and takeaway containers.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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