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What’s Ocean Plastic Pollution Got To Do With Climate Change?

Alice Griffiths

7th September 2022

I have lost count of the number of younger students who have conflated marine plastic pollution with the climate crisis. So annoying!

No, people littering the sea with plastic bottles is not the main cause of anthropogenic climate change. (Year 7 are always obsessed with litter crimes.) No, flushing cotton buds into the sewers and, ultimately, our rivers and seas does not make the enhanced greenhouse effect so much worse. Definitely not.

Shared by via World Bank blogpost

But more recently, I have seen this confusion (or jumbling of issues) as an opportunity to help students explore in greater depth the links between our consumption and the environment:

  • While clearly not as destructive as the wholesale burning of fossil fuels to generate heat and electricity, the manufacturing of plastic using petrochemicals, along with the process of their extraction and transportation, does all creates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The plastics industry accounts for about 6% of global oil consumption; in the US (and UK) its fracked gas. Moreover, the ongoing manufacture of new plastic in 2022 is part of an enduring mentality that says natural gas and other fossil fuels are there to be used in the here and now - despite the simultaneous ‘drive to net zero’ agenda.
  • Secondly, surely it’s that plastic that makes it possible for us to consume so much in the most polluting parts of the world, us HICs. Plastic packaging enables the transport of goods around the world (using even more fossil fuels). Plastic wrap, boxes and bottles have helped make global trade possible. Product miles (with associated GHGs) have ballooned as result.
  • Thirdly, incineration of plastic waste creates additional GHG emissions. And the situation can be even worse if our waste is sent abroad. Black carbon emitted from the uncontrolled, open burning of waste sites in LDEs is particularly destructive, having the global warming potential of up to 5000 times greater than carbon dioxide.
  • Further, I have been proved wrong (or rather been surprised) by recent science on the way microplastics enhance ice melt, by changing the albedo of the Arctic.
  • Marine life doesn’t appreciate being smothered by or ingesting microplastics either. For example, plankton’s ability to sequester carbon is affected.
  • Also, there are the greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, produced when ocean plastic degrades. Exposed to solar radiation in air or water plastics break down releasing carbon emissions.

So, yes, there are quite a few important links between plastic pollution and climate change - this World Bank article is a nice explainer.

Plastic is all about an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to the impact of human activities on the natural world. It’s like the climate crisis in a (plastic) bottle. Despite the evidence that plastic we use everyday isn’t going anywhere (rather it’s going everywhere) AND the fact that we make it from fossil fuels, so there’s a pretty obvious problem. By 2050, it is estimated that the cumulation of greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons, which is 10-13% of the entire remaining carbon budget. Read the 2019 report on the Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet by the Centre for International Environmental Law here.

On reflection, as a geography teacher, it’s probably not my job isn’t to stomp on the curiosity of proto-environmentalists!

Alice Griffiths

Alice has taught Geography over a period of twenty years. She is a published author and editor of a wide range of A level resources and has also created award-winning, online content for younger students. An occasional presenter at the GA’s annual conference, she was head of department at an 11-18 school until 2020.

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