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Climate killer plastic?

2 July 2019

It is beyond clear that we need to address climate change at a global scale. Many have criticized that the transition to a circular economy requires large amounts of energy – the emissions of which cancel out environmental gains of reducing resource consumption and waste. Are waste reduction and the fight against the climate crisis competing goals – or maybe even best allies?

Landfilling and open dumping of solid household waste are associated with the highest amount of GHG emissions due to anaerobic digestion of organic material. This methane released is one of the most potent climate greenhouse gasses and reducing it is paramount to fighting GHG emissions in the waste sector. For this reason, many countries have or will phase out landfilling entirely.

With organic matter a well-known culprit, what about other sources of waste? The adverse impacts of plastic pollution have been discussed at length and public awareness about the issue is rising together with some tangible action from politics and the economy. The effect of plastic on the climate is far less obvious to many.

A recent study by scholar from UC Santa Barbara on plastic’s carbon footprint has shed light on this question.  All in all, the emissions from plastics in 2015 were equivalent to nearly 1.8 billion metric tons of CO2. Over half of the CO2 emissions in the plastic life cycle are related to emission during production. A total switch to renewable energy sources during the entire production process would result in a 51% reduction of GHG emissions in the plastic production chain.

When looking forward, global waste is expected to grow to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050, more than double population growth over the same period. Daily per capita waste generation in high-income countries is projected to increase by 19 percent by 2050, compared to low- and middle-income countries where it is expected to increase by approximately 40% or more. With these numbers in mind, it is clear that waste generation needs to be tackled at the source, but GHG emission need to become a priority along the entire value chain, with recycling posing only a suboptimal solution in terms of GHG emissions.