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  • Writer's pictureGrisea Biotecnologia

The relationship between plastic use and climate change: a global environmental challengeIntroduct


Conventional plastics are mainly derived from the extraction of gas and petroleum. These materials have interesting properties such as lightweight, flexibility, strength, and most importantly, economic benefits that have made them candidates for replacing glass, metal, and wood in many everyday applications. This has led to an increase in their global production. Nowadays, plastic has become an integral part of our lifestyle, and global warming and climate change are the most critical problems the world faces.

In this article, we will understand the problem, discuss some strategies to mitigate the negative effects of conventional plastic use, and propose possible changes to reduce its impact.

Key environmental problems caused by conventional plastic
  1. Greenhouse gas emissions in plastic production and disposal: Conventional plastics derived from fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) during their production, posing a significant threat to the environment by contributing to global warming. By 2050, plastics are projected to account for 13% of our planet's carbon budget. Poor plastic waste management and its presence in riverbanks, coastlines, and landscapes further increase GHG emissions.

  2. Non-biodegradable nature and environmental accumulation: Fossil-based plastics are non-biodegradable, and due to their high consumption and poor waste management, they accumulate in the environment, becoming a grave global environmental threat. It is estimated that 40% of all plastic in the environment is single-use, designed to be used once and then discarded.

  3. Ocean pollution and impact on marine life: Annually, at least 8 million tons of discarded plastics enter our oceans, raising concerns about plastic toxicity in marine life as they end up in the food chain and affect human health. Ocean plastic pollution mainly originates from nautical activities, fishing, and aquaculture. Approximately 35% of all plastics produced are high-density plastics that can sink to the ocean floor, while the remaining 65% float on the surface, traveling long distances in the ocean.

Explanation of climate change and its global impact

The solution of bioplastics:

It is essential to note that carbon emissions from plastic waste are not limited to the production stage. The degradation of long carbon chains in plastic products naturally emits toxic GHGs, mainly methane and ethylene, which have a high global warming effect. An alternative to this problem is to increase the production of biodegradable plastic materials to prevent the accumulation of non-biodegradable plastics in the environment. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) analysis of different biodegradable plastic products shows lower environmental impacts compared to conventional plastics.

Considering the involvement in global climate change and its environmental toxicity, urgent strategies and actions are needed to control the threat posed by conventional plastics. Strategies to reduce harmful GHG emissions produced during plastic production and avoid marine littering are essential for carbon sequestration. Biobased plastics generally have fewer GHG emissions in their life cycle and are part of the solution to this significant problem. Biodegradable biopolymer examples include polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), thermoplastic starch (TPS), and polylactic acid (PLA).

The importance of consumer awareness in choosing sustainable products

To promote bioplastics, different effective strategies have been formulated by the European Commission (EC). Global production of biobased plastics reached approximately 2.05 million metric tons in 2017 and is projected to increase its pace by 20% in the coming years. Recycling is another strategy that can be used to reduce GHG emissions, but unfortunately, the percentage of recycling is very low worldwide, necessitating global public policies for recycling to work in all countries.

Banning single-use plastics can also be employed as another strategy to reduce the harmful impact of plastics on the climate. Reduced plastic consumption will positively affect ecosystem health. Countries like Australia, Peru, India, and France have strictly restricted the use of disposable plastics.

In conclusion, mitigating climate change through changes in plastic production and consumption requires evidence-based public policies and environmental studies, such as LCA. Consumer awareness and informed decision-making are crucial but do not solve the entire problem. Only through collective efforts can we face the challenges of climate change and promote a transition to a more sustainable society.

Content and writing by: Carolina Moutinho Ferreira


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