Plastic: A Source of Greenhouse Gases
Updated: August 18, 2018

In the decades since polymers were first synthesized from fossil fuels, they have proliferated to a massive number of types and uses. Our world today is saturated with plastics that are in use and that have been discarded.

Plastics are not "biodegradable" (that is, they will not break down into natural materials in the environment without causing harm). Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some form, with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated in waste-to-energy plants. What they do is gradually break into ever-smaller particles, eventually becoming the "microplastic" mass that has become ubiquitous in the water and soil of Earth. Microplastics have been detected in many things that we consume, including tap and bottled water, beer, and the very air we breathe.

Plastics release potent greenhouse gases when exposed to sunlight
Plastic attracts and holds persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and DDT, highly bioaccumulative compounds that are some of the most potent toxins found on the planet. So, in addition to ingesting physically and chemically damaging plastic, terrestrial and aquatic life is also ingesting concentrated quantities of these chemicals. This bioaccumulation increases in concentration as it works up the food chain and into our bodies.

New Findings About Plastic

Now there is new research published on August 1, 2018, documenting that plastics release potent greenhouse gases when exposed to sunlight. Preliminary experiments showed that all of the polymer types tested (polycarbonate, acrylic, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene, high-density polyethylene and low-density polyethylene) produced measurable quantities of methane and ethylene when exposed to ambient solar radiation, but it was low-density polyethylene that produced methane at the greatest rate. Methane is 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential.

So that mass of microplastics floating on the ocean, plastic furniture baking in the sun, pool floats, plastic decking, the plastic in open bins at the transfer station, all those plastic grocery bags caught in fences and trees, and countless other items under the sun are emitting greenhouse gases.

Methane From Hydrofracking

Most plastics are synthesized from natural gas. The process of obtaining natural gas from deep in the stone of the earth has been one of the most controversial of all modern industrial processes. In addition to many other problems that it creates, huge amounts of methane escape during the mining process.

Less plastic used by consumers may mean less plastic created, thus less demand for natural gas, thus less fracking, thus less methane emitted.

Toxic In All Phases

The impacts of plastic production are heavy in every phase of its life cycle. In addition to issues around disposal and persistence in the environment, there are problems in how these materials are produced, including air emissions, water pollution, and worker health risks. Standard ingredients in plastic production are carcinogens, neurotoxins, hormone-disruptors and greenhouse gases that inevitably find their way into our ecology through water, land, and air pollution.

People often ask about "compostable" plastics, made from starch; the sad answer is that they will decompose into carbon dioxide and water only in the prolonged heat of a "controlled composting environment," not in a backyard compost, and certainly never in a landfill. Besides, they probably have many of the same added chemicals that create problems with fossil-fuel-based plastics.

What About Recycling?

In the past, our greatest concern about waste plastic was that it was filling up our landfills with bulky material that would never degrade, so recycling seemed to be a partial solution. Now that we know that waste plastic is offgassing some of the very chemicals that are causing global climate change, suddenly recycling doesn't seem like such a good idea.

Only a few types of plastic can really be recycled anyway, and it takes a good deal of water and energy to do so. A very small percentage of plastic is recycled, perhaps as little as 5 to 10%. Now China, to which we have been shipping many tons of our recycling, is refusing to accept it, partly because it's "contaminated" with non-recyclable materials. This is largely due to what's come to be known as "aspirational recycling" — in other words, a well-meaning person wishes something were recyclable and can't bear to put it in the trash, so they put it in the recycling bin, even though they know better.

We must reduce the amount of plastic we purchase.

What's To Be Done?

At the individual level, we must reduce the amount of plastic we purchase, either intentionally or unintentionally (as packaging) by careful evaluation of our consumer choices. See the section below about alternatives to plastics. We can support organizations that are striving to protect the environment.

At the collective level, we must educate each other about these problems. We can petition vendors to use more paper and cardboard packaging.

At the governmental level, we must make sure that our legislators are aware of these problems, and make it clear that plastic is a critical issue in health, waste disposal, and climate change. Request bills to ban or regulate plastic bags, ban microplastics in consumer products, and ban polystyrene packaging. Ask for support of more research and development on alternatives to plastics.

At the industrial level, we must make sure that industries know we are aware that their products are causing harm, and demand that they take more responsibility for their impacts.

What You Can Do To Cut Down On Plastic In Your Life

The first principle of recycling is to REFUSE, but this presents a challenge to even the most dedicated and resourceful individuals. Here are a number of things you can easily do that can make a big difference in reducing the amount of plastic in your life.

  1. Bring your own shopping bag An increasing number of municipalities are regulating plastic shopping bags. Once you get into the habit, it's easy to simply bring a bunch of tote bags whenever you go shopping. When you get really serious, you can bring your own reusable bags for produce, or in a lot of cases, do without them.
  2. Don't buy bottled water Your town spends a lot of tax dollars on ensuring a safe water supply. If you don't want to drink chlorinated water, just run it through a filter. When you go out, bring your own water supply in a reusable glass or metal bottle.
  3. Bring your own mug or thermos Even though take-out coffee cups are paper, they are lined with polyethylene (a suspected human carcinogen) and perish forbid they should be made of styrofoam (expanded polystyrene)!
  4. Choose cardboard It's generally easier to recycle cardboard than plastic. So, when you have the choice, pick pasta in a box instead of pasta in a plastic bag, or detergent in a box instead of a plastic bottle. When you order online, specify plastic-free packaging; it may not always work, but worth a try.
  5. Say NO to straws Americans discard 500,000,000 plastic straws a day. Britain has banned them, and McDonald's in the UK and Ireland will be switching to paper straws. Whether at home or when you're at a bar or restaurant, plastic straws are a single-use item that's often just not necessary. If you must have a straw, use it over and over (could be hundreds of times on one straw).
  6. Get that plastic off your face Most microplastics come from bigger items breaking down, but they are also commonly added to products like exfoliating face wash and toothpaste. Most wastewater treatment facilities are not able to filter them, so out they go into the environment. There are many biodegradable alternatives, so avoid items with "polypropylene" or "polyethylene" in the ingredients list. Or consider making your own.
  7. Choose a different razor Instead of trashing plastic razors when they wear out, consider switching to a razor that lets you replace just the blade.
  8. Rethink your food storage Instead of plastic, use jars and other kinds of glass containers in the fridge. An advantage is that you can put some (not all) glass containers right in the microwave; look for a "microwave safe" label.
  9. Food to go Do you really want to be using all those disposable plastic baggies, plastic wrap and plastic bottles to pack your lunches? Why not use waxed paper, a thermos and a cloth lunch bag? (Some people even re-use the waxed paper.) Or pack a bento box. And if you really feel brave and determined, you can use glass containers and cloth bags when ordering carryout. It's worth a try! Carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at picnics, potlucks or take-out restaurants.
  10. Shop in bulk One of the best ways to reduce the packaging waste madness is to patronize shops that provide bulk refilling stations, and bring your own bags and containers.
  11. Stop buying synthetic clothes One of the greatest sources of microplastic in the environment is fibers from synthetic fabrics, especially fleece, that wash down the drain during laundering. Use of natural fibers will alleviate this problem.
  12. Go digital No need for plastic CDs, DVDs and jewel cases when you buy your music and videos online.
    Many stores are now offering receipts sent to your e-mail instead of paper receipts (double benefit: you don't have to handle paper receipts coated with BPA, which has been found to be an endocrine and neuro disruptor).
  13. Choose alternatives to plastic
    Search on the Internet for sites that sell plastic-free goods.
    Instead of teflon, buy non-stick cookware that's made with ceramic. It works great!

    In building:

    • Contract with a certified environmental builder.
    • Use cast iron, clay, cement or aluminum pipes and gutters instead of PVC.
    • Research alternatives to plastic insulation; these include fiberglass (made from recycled glass), straw or cellulose-based insulation in walls and roofs, and mineral board insulation below basement walls instead of foam.
    • Choose wood or cement-board siding or plaster as an exterior finish instead of vinyl.
    • Paint with clay, lime, or casein-based finishes instead of acrylic or latex paints.
    • For decking, use natural wood products.
  14. Speak up Support bans of plastic bags, microplastic and polystyrene foam.
  15. Spread the word Talk to your family and friends about why it is important to reduce plastic in our lives and the nasty impacts of plastic pollution.
What is your suggestion for how we can cut our consumption of plastic? Contact Us