Young people around the world are demanding an end to the age of fossil fuels this Friday, September 20 in a Global Climate Strike.
“Our house is on fire, let’s act like it,” said Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist from Sweden and leader for the Global Climate Strike.
But did you know that plastic contributes to climate change? It’s not just gasoline cars and air travel we’re fighting against—99 percent of plastic is made from fossil fuels. Plastic is a product of the gas and petroleum industry.
How Plastic Contributes To Climate Change
In 2019 alone, producing and incinerating plastic will emit approximately 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. That’s equivalent to the pollution from 189 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants, according to a new report, Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet.
But it’s not just the beginning and end of the plastic lifecycle that emits greenhouse gases. Plastic’s entire lifecycle emits so many greenhouse gases that, at present rates, threaten the ability of the global community to meet carbon emissions targets. Here’s how:
Extraction and Transport
The extraction and transport of fossil fuels to create plastic produces significant greenhouse gases. From literal emissions, like methane leakage and flaring, emissions from fuel combustion and energy consumption in the process of drilling for oil or gas, and emissions caused by land disturbance when forests and fields are cleared for well pads and pipelines to transport the fossil fuel, extraction and transportation are intensive processes, all of which happen before the plastic is even made.
Refining and Manufacturing
Manufacturing plastic is both energy and emissions intensive. Refining plastic is one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive industries in the entire manufacturing sector. And the industry is growing. A new Shell ethane cracker being constructed in Pennsylvania could emit up to 2.25 million tons of CO2 every year—that’s like adding 493 thousand new cars to the road. This kind of plastic manufacturing facility is only one of more than 300 new and expanded petrochemical projects being built in the U.S. alone.
After use, whether plastic is landfilled, recycled, or incinerated, it produces greenhouse gas emissions. Landfilling emits the least, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other risks. Recycling emits a moderate amount, but it also displaces the need for new virgin plastic to be manufactured. Incineration emits the most and is the primary driver of emissions from plastic waste management. Globally, the use of incineration in plastic waste management is expected to be pushed in years to come.
In The Environment
Not all plastic ends up being landfilled, recycled, or incinerated. The plastic that is unmanaged ends up in the environment, where it continues to impact the climate. Plastic at the ocean’s surface continually releases methane and other greenhouse gases—these emissions increase as plastic breaks down further. Plastic on the coastlines, riverbanks, and landscapes releases greenhouse gases at an even higher rate. Microplastics in the oceans may also interfere with the ocean’s capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide.
“The production of plastics must be significantly curtailed for humanity to have a real, fighting chance in averting catastrophic climate change while reversing the plastic pollution crisis at the same time,” said Von Hernandez, one of the report’s authors.
More than 40 percent of plastic produced worldwide is for packaging and items like straws and plastic cutlery that are designed to be used once and then thrown away. So all of the energy and resources that went into extraction, transporting, refining, and manufacturing are quickly spent on items used for less than an hour.
Climate impacts of plastic threaten the global community’s efforts to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C (34.7°F) degrees, according to the report. But the plastic industry has kept its blinders on, ignoring international efforts to reduce carbon pollution and prevent a climate catastrophe.
“Because the drivers of the climate crisis and the plastic crisis are closely linked, so to are their solutions: humanity must end its reliance on fossil fuels and on fossil plastics that the planet can no longer afford,” said Carroll Muffett, President of the Center for International Environmental Law, who contributed to the report.
What The Global Climate Strike Is And Who’s Participating
The Global Climate Strike was inspired by student activist Greta Thunberg’s school strike for climate. The strike aims to demonstrate that people cannot continue on with business as usual—the climate crisis is an emergency and everyone needs to start acting like it.
Strikers are demanding climate justice for everyone by urging people and politicians to act now to “transition fairly and swiftly away from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy for all, [otherwise] the injustice of the climate crisis will only get worse.”
Students around the world are skipping school to bring attention to the problem. New York City public schools will even excuse students who miss school to attend a strike, with the consent of their parent(s).
The movement may have started with students, but adults have also jumped on board. Friday, adults will skip work to join students as they make their demands for climate justice. To show their support for strikers, stores like Lush, Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s will be closing their doors for the day.
Over 450 climate strikes are planned for Friday in the U.S. alone and Global Climate Strikes are scheduled to take place in 117 countries.
Anyone and everyone can join the Climate Strike, including you. Find a climate strike in your area here. Just remember, don’t bring a plastic water bottle! ;)
Your actions can have a bigger influence than you might imagine. And if you don’t take our word, take Greta’s, “If there is one day to join, then this is the day.”