If you were to draw a picture in your head of two overlapping circles, one represents plastic pollution and the other representing climate change. In the intersection of these two circles, you will find fossil fuels. However, in this blog, we would be discussing greenhouse emissions related to the lifecycle of plastic which includes waste management.
Now some of you might know what fossils fuels are but to some of those who might not know; these are coal, crude oil and natural gas formed from the fossilized remains of animals and also plants that lived millions of years ago.
Ok, since we are now all on the same page, we will go ahead and explain in simple detail the link between plastics and fossil fuels as I assume we already know the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change. If not, let us know in the comments below, and we can write a short blog about this, as we would be happy to also explain this to you.
Origin of Plastics
Plastics are derived naturally from organic materials such as coal, natural gas, salt, cellulose and of course crude oil. However, the primary sources are natural gas and crude oil with coal used in smaller amounts, mainly in China. Companies in North America tend to use mostly natural gas to produce plastic while companies in Europe rely on crude oil for its plastic production.
According to a 2017 report carried out by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CITL), 47% of the world's plastic was manufactured using crude oil and 35% from natural gas. The report also mentioned that by 2027, this mix was going to shift to 44% crude oil and 38.5% natural gas.
Plastic produced from plant-based sources is now on the rise, as they tend to produce less than 26% of greenhouse gases compared with its fossil-based counterpart. However, they come with some drawbacks which we will explain in another blog post but to summarise; the concerns vary from the cost of materials, production complexities to extensive land use and lack of composting facilities.
Emissions from Crude oil
As mentioned earlier, a vast majority of the plastics we use today are from crude oil, mainly because of the ease of manufacturing during the processing stages.
In simple terms, crude oil extracted from the ground is transported to a refinery. The oil refinery process produces a liquid called naphtha, amongst other things. A process called 'cracking' turns naphtha into ethylene or propylene, which is the building block of the plastic production process. Ethylene is then further processed into poly-ethylene which is what we call plastics today. The cracking procedure is more energy-intensive than the process carried out with natural gas as it requires higher temperatures, which results in more greenhouse gas emissions.
Emissions from Natural gas
Plastics produced from natural gas is very similar in process to plastic created from crude oil. Instead of naphtha in the case of crude oil, ethane is the building block of the production process. Natural gas extracted from the ground is called methane; this converts to into ethane via a condensation process, which is then further processed into poly-ethylene. Majority of the greenhouse gas produced is also from the conversion process of ethane to ethylene via cracking.
Mostly every piece of plastic we see in our everyday lives begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are generated at every stage of the plastic lifecycle - from fossil fuel extraction, plastic refining and manufacture to plastic waste management.
The industrial sector comprises of 4 main segments, namely steel, aluminium, cement and plastic. Plastic is said to be witnessing the most rapid and sustained growth in greenhouse gas emissions. At present rates, according to a report also from the Centre for International Environmental Law, greenhouse gas emissions from the lifecycle of plastic threaten the ability for the global community to meet CO2 targets.
During plastic production, extraction and transport of fuels produce a significant amount of greenhouse gases, which includes emissions from fuel combustion and energy consumption utilized in the drilling of oil or gas. Methane leakage is another direct source of emission during this process, known to be 25times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.
The plastic refining process, as mentioned earlier, is among the most greenhouse-gas intensive aspect in the manufacturing sector, and, said to be the fastest-growing.
When it comes to waste, plastic generally is landfilled, incinerated or recycled. All of these produce a varying amount of greenhouse gas; however, incineration leads to high emissions and is the primary driver of greenhouse gas emissions from plastic waste.
To conclude, we have briefly mapped out the lifecycle of plastic and highlighted the areas emitting the most greenhouse gases. But then, what is the most effective method of reducing the climate impact from the plastic lifecycle?
REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE
We believe the answer lies in those three words above - reduce, reuse, recycle. Ultimately, cutting emissions associated with plastics will require an all-of-the-above strategy, with lowering our plastic use or swapping for plastic alternative options the most effective.
It is why we created WAFE, to help inspire communities around the world to live environmentally friendly lifestyles through our plastic-free product offering.
The former CEO of a once leading bioplastics company that declared bankrupts in 2014 said
"People are somewhat conscious of the environmental impact of oil-based materials that will not biodegrade, but they are not willing to spend the extra dollars to push [new] types of materials"
We must admit, sometimes we feel like the fight against plastic is a losing battle, but our hope and love for the planet keeps us going.
Without the planet, humanity ceases to exist.