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Common Plastic Is The Latest Discovered Source Of Greenhouse Gases

Aug 15, 2018 09:49 AM EDT
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Plastic pollution is more than just accumulating waste in our lands and oceans, after all. A new study reveals that plastic releases greenhouse gases as it breaks down, adding effect to global warming and climate change.

New Discovery On Plastic And Environment

As plastic breaks down into microplastics, it releases various chemicals into the air. This study published in PLOS One finds that degradation of common plastic such as polyethylene — used often to make shopping bags — produces two greenhouse gases: methane and ethylene.

Methane does not last in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide (which is a more common greenhouse gas) does, but it is reported to be about 84 times more potent than carbon in absorbing heat.

Sarah-Jeanne Royer, lead of the research team in University of Hawaii, explains that emissions from plastic are intensified by exposure to sun.

"Aided by solar radiation, the plastic will degrade and become microplastic, and the more the plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, the more it will produce greenhouse gases," Royer told the Canadian Press.

Plastic Pollution And Greenhouse Effect: What Do They Do?

Plastics are polymers — long chains of repeating molecules connected together.

Plastics are widely used for being durable, low cost, and easy to manufacture. They can be found in water bottles, car parts, prosthetic limbs, and everyday products.

This timeline by the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education estimates that the average water bottle marine debris takes at least 100 years to biodegrade.

While this study is the first to document the greenhouse contribution of plastic when it degrades, the role of plastic in gas emissions has been known to us for a while. It starts from the production of plastic itself.

Plastic Manufacturing's Greater Role In Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency finds the link of plastic production to climate change in the use of fossil fuels. For instance, petroleum products are used as raw materials in manufacturing plastic while energy from oil or natural gas powers the production.

To extract these fossil fuels, they have to be drilled from Earth — releasing carbon monoxide, possibly leaking methane and many other toxic emissions.

With the increasing amount of plastic manufacturing, the World Economic Forum estimates that plastic industries use 6 to 8 percent of the global oil production. The number is expected to rise by 2050 to 20 percent.

Holding Big Producers Accountable

Nina Jensen, CEO of Rev Ocean, listed increased accountability to producers, greater research efforts to find alternative materials, and international agreements as essential steps to solving the problem on plastic.

"Instead, alternatives to non-degradable plastics must be developed, and the industries responsible for the major plastic wastes must be targeted with specific industry agreements and producer liability arrangements." she wrote.

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