The life cycle of plastic begins underground, where oil and gas are extracted from deep below the planet’s surface. These fossil fuels are then refined in facilities, using extreme temperatures and a significant amount of water and energy, where they are turned into pellets which are ultimately melted down and molded into things like water bottles, wrappers , garbage bags and clothes.
And the widespread use of single-use plastic – the things we use once and then throw away – is only making its disposal worse. Plastics do not decompose once thrown into the environment. And, alarmingly, only about 9% of plastic in the United States is actually recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — even the things you specifically threw in the trash.
What you may not realize is that this is not just a pollution problem. It’s a climate problem. And by the time we start talking about recycling, the damage is already done.
The plastic manufacturing process is so energy-intensive that if the plastics industry were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, according to a 2021 report by Beyond Plastics.
Plastics are the “new coal,” said Judith Enck, former regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and now president of Beyond Plastics. Power generation from coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel – is already being phased out. But Enck said plastics are likely to stick longer unless consumers drastically reduce their use of plastic.
“It’s a climate killer,” Enck told CNN. “We are finally seeing an increase in renewables and energy efficiency. And the fossil fuel industry knew they were losing market share in transportation and power generation, so plastic production is the plan. B for the fossil fuel industry.”
From its production to its end of life, plastic emits greenhouse gas emissions at each stage of its life cycle. Here’s why experts say the convenience of plastic comes at a terrible cost to the climate, and what you can do to help reduce its impact.
The plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of global warming emissions each year, according to the Beyond Plastics report.
That’s the same amount as the average emissions released by 116 coal-fired power plants in 2020, according to the report’s authors. It’s also the same annual emissions as about 50 million cars, according to the EPA. And more and more plastic manufacturing facilities continue to come online.
“Remember that when you make plastic there are greenhouse gas emissions, but these facilities also emit huge amounts of airborne toxins and particulates,” Enck added. “It really is a health threat.”
Refineries and production facilities also tend to locate in marginalized communities of color, Enck said.
“If you look at where over 90% of climate pollution is released by the plastics industry, it’s in 18 communities across the country, and they’re all low-income communities and the residents are more likely to be people of color,” Enck said, describing other findings from the report. “Plastic production is a matter of environmental justice.”
And plastic recycling doesn’t work, Enck said, because most of what we think we recycle simply ends up in landfill. It also does not address the global warming emissions that come from its manufacture in the first place.
Jacqueline Savitz, policy director for Oceana North America, said people should view the plastic crisis as an overflowing bathtub.
“When the tub overflows, you don’t want to just run for the mop; first, you want to turn off the faucet,” Savitz said. “Recycling is the mop. You won’t get very far if the tap is always on. So what we need to do is reduce the amount of plastics we produce at the source, and that is turn off the tap.”
What can you do about it
Recycling alone won’t solve this huge problem, Enck said, but we need to do it anyway, keeping in mind what can and cannot be recycled.
The numbering system at the bottom of plastic items does not guarantee that they will be recycled. Only things marked 1 and 2 – and on rare occasions, 5 – are safe bets, depending on what your municipality can handle.
That’s why it’s so important to focus on reducing plastic use in the first place, Enck said, and our individual changes can add up.
“It just won’t solve the problem unless we change the law,” Enck said. “But with individual actions, what I’m urging people to do is look at their own home or workplace – what’s your most heavy use of plastic?”
You won’t know what you can change until you take stock. Take note of all the plastics in your home. Most single-use items you’ll find around the kitchen and bathroom. Then, armed with a list of where you use the most single-use plastic, you can start making replacements.
Here are some examples:
Say no to bottled water — Get some canteens and remove a major source of plastic from your life.
Reusable Grocery Bags — You can easily go further by not using the plastic bags the store provides for your apples and broccoli. If you are not comfortable putting products directly into the cart, have a special bag to carry them until you get to checkout. There is no rule that says you have to pack your fruits and vegetables at the store.
Prefer paper packaging (or not) to plastic — If you have two versions of the same product in front of you and one is wrapped in paper or cardboard and the other in plastic, then the choice is obvious. And look for plastic-free options like bar shampoo.
Buy in bulk to reduce plastic waste — Nuts, rice and beans are all sold in plastic bags, but they don’t need them. Bring your own reusable containers to fill with your favorite bulk foods. (Just be sure to zero the scale before you start filling them, so you don’t pay for the weight of your container.)
Refuse plastic cutlery — Bring your own utensils to restaurants that usually provide plastics. Or, if you’re ordering takeout, tell the restaurant they don’t need to add it to your bag.
And Enck’s group has more suggestions on how to reduce your personal plastic use.
Ultimately, the world needs large-scale changes to address the climate impact of the fossil fuel and plastics industries, Savitz said. Oceana, for example, is working with local volunteers from cities and counties across the country to help pass new laws to reduce single-use plastics, in hopes of sparking change at the national level.
“We think if we could start reducing single-use plastics locally with local ordinances, it might start to become more of the norm,” she said. “Then we can start taking it to higher levels of government, even going so far as to get national policies that will lead to reductions in plastic use.”
Ultimately, Savitz said consumers must continue to urge big business to provide plastic-free solutions and support refill and reuse programs to encourage society to avoid plastic use and avoid the worst. impacts of the climate crisis.
“Our country is burning and flooding and hurricanes are coming earlier and earlier,” she told CNN. “I really think it’s shocking that one of the things that really leads to this is plastic, and it hurts us in other ways too. So if we could find a way to reduce our plastic production by as a country and as a global society, we would take a bite out of climate change.”
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