Quantcast

Study Finds New Reason to Ban Plastic: It Emits Methane in the Sun

Oceans
Plastic pollution on a beach in Hawaii. NOAA

The proliferation of plastic pollution has led to concerns over its impact on marine life and human health as the toxins it absorbs and emits move up the food chain. Now, a new study reveals yet another potential plastic hazard: It releases greenhouse gasses.


The study, published in PLOS One Wednesday, found that some of the most common plastics in the environment release the greenhouse gasses methane and ethylene when exposed to sunlight.

While the amounts released by the plastics are small, researchers are concerned that the scale of plastic production and waste means they could still contribute to climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions over time.

"Considering the amounts of plastic washing ashore on our coastlines and the amount of plastic exposed to ambient conditions, our finding provides further evidence that we need to stop plastic production at the source, especially single use plastic," lead author Dr. Sarah-Jeanne Royer said in a University of Hawaii press release.

Royer didn't set out to study plastics, BBC News reported. Instead, she was measuring the methane produced by biological organisms in sea water when she discovered that more methane was coming from the plastic bottles holding the samples.

"It was a totally unexpected discovery," she told BBC News.

Her University of Hawaii research team went on to test polycarbonate, acrylic, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene, high-density polyethylene and low-density polyethylene (LDPE), which are used commonly in food packaging, textiles, construction and other plastic goods, according to the University of Hawaii.

Polyethylene, which is used in plastic bags and is the most used and discarded plastic in the world, emitted the largest amounts of the greenhouse gasses.

After being exposed to sunlight for 212 days, LDPE emitted 176 times the methane that it had at the start of the experiment, BBC News reported.

This is because, when the plastic is exposed to sunlight, it breaks down, cracking and exposing more plastic area to the sun, which leads to greater gas emission.

Once LDPE had been exposed to the sun, it continued to emit gases even in darkness, the study found.

LDPE waste pulled from the ocean also emitted greenhouse gasses when laid out in sunlight.

While it was known that plastic releases carbon dioxide when it degrades, this is the first research to measure the emission of other greenhouse gasses.

"Research on plastic waste is revealing it to be a disturbing pandora's box," University of Geneva chemist Dr. Montserrat Filella, who was not involved with the research, told BBC News. "As research expands our knowledge, we are realising that plastics can be insidious in many other ways. For instance, as vectors of 'hidden pollutants,' such as heavy metals present in them or, now, as a source of greenhouse gases. And, in all cases, throughout the entire lifetime of the plastic."

Royer is now working on estimating the amount of plastic exposed to sun globally so that she can find ways to limit its contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, according to the University of Hawaii.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Pexels

By Ketura Persellin

Global consumption of beef, lamb and goat is expected to rise by almost 90 percent between 2010 and 2050. But that doesn't mean you need to eat more meat. In fact, recent news from Washington gives you even less confidence in your meat: Pork inspections may be taken over by the industry itself, if a Trump administration proposal goes into effect, putting tests for deadly pathogens into the hands of line workers.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Kaitlyn Berkheiser

While enjoying an occasional alcoholic beverage is unlikely to harm your health, drinking in excess can have substantial negative effects on your body and well-being.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
MStudioImages / E+ / Getty Images

By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

Backpacking is an exciting way to explore the wilderness or travel to foreign countries on a budget.

Read More Show Less
Tim P. Whitby / 21st Century Fox / Getty Images

The beauty products we put on our skin can have important consequences for our health. Just this March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that some Claire's cosmetics had tested positive for asbestos. But the FDA could only issue a warning, not a recall, because current law does not empower the agency to do so.

Michelle Pfeiffer wants to change that.

The actress and Environmental Working Group (EWG) board member was spotted on Capitol Hill Thursday lobbying lawmakers on behalf of a bill that would increase oversight of the cosmetics industry, The Washington Post reported.

Read More Show Less
A protest march against the Line 3 pipeline in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 18, 2018. Fibonacci Blue / CC BY 2.0

By Collin Rees

We know that people power can stop dangerous fossil fuel projects like the proposed Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline in Minnesota, because we've proved it over and over again — and recently we've had two more big wins.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Scientists released a study showing that a million species are at risk for extinction, but it was largely ignored by the corporate news media. Danny Perez Photography / Flickr / CC

By Julia Conley

Scientists at the United Nations' intergovernmental body focusing on biodiversity sounded alarms earlier this month with its report on the looming potential extinction of one million species — but few heard their calls, according to a German newspaper report.

Read More Show Less
DoneGood

By Cullen Schwarz

Ethical shopping is a somewhat new phenomenon. We're far more familiar with the "tried and tested" methods of doing good, like donating our money or time.

Read More Show Less
Pixabay

Summer is fast approaching, which means it's time to stock up on sunscreen to ward off the harmful effects of sun exposure. Not all sunscreens are created equally, however.

Read More Show Less