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Virgin Plastics - contributing to a climate catastrophe

  • 2 min read

How does plastic contribute to climate change?

We’re all super-aware of the devastating impact plastic can have on our oceans and natural environment, but perhaps less aware of how plastics are contributing to climate change. At Better Packaging Co., we think that needs to change!

This week is COP26, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference and we have launched our new POLLAST!C packaging range at the same time for one significant reason; to highlight the climate benefits from switching from virgin to recycled plastic content. POLLAST!C is made from 100% ocean bound plastic and proves that we can make recycled plastic packaging– at scale and at a competitive price. There is NO excuse for companies to still be using virgin plastic in their packaging. We’re calling it. If a company is still using virgin plastics, then they are either too lazy to look for an alternative OR they just don’t care.  

A study released this month by 'Beyond Plastics' at Bennington College analysed data from ten stages of plastics production, usage, and disposal and found that the U.S. plastics industry is releasing at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants. If the production of virgin plastics continues to grow as it is, then by 2030, it will release more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere than coal production will in the USA1The World Economic Forum also estimates that in a BAU scenario, greenhouse emissions from the plastics sector will make up 15% of the global carbon budget by 2050.

Here’s how … It happens at almost every stage of the virgin plastic product lifecycle.

Stage 1: Raw Material Sourcing

‘Virgin plastics’ are made from oil and gas. To get that oil and gas, fossil fuel companies drill down into the earth and inject sand, chemicals or water into the rock in a process called ‘fracking’. The fracking process itself releases large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG). The extraction and transportation of the resulting fossil fuels is then also incredibly carbon-intensive and requires a ton of energy.

Land disturbance also contributes to GHG emissions. Each mile of pipeline has to be surrounded by a zone of cleared land – about 19.2 million acres in the United States. Assuming just a third of the impacted land is forested, 1.686 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere as a result of clearing2. All of the carbon from those trees and the soil and is removed from the earth and introduced to the atmosphere.

Stage 3:
End-of-life

Incineration is a popular choice for the disposal of ‘troublesome’ plastics but it’s disastrous for the environment. Burning waste can release thousands of pollutants.

If it ends up in water (which it so often does), plastic (particularly LDPE) also releases GHGs as it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces3.

Stage 2: Production

When these fuels are then ‘cracked’ to make ethane (the main building block of plastic), they release even more GHGs.

More reading:

As well as the sources linked above, we’d highly recommend reading this article by Kathryn Kello from Going Zero Waste explaining how plastics are made – in layman’s terms!

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