According to the World Economic Forum, about 4-8% of annual global oil consumption is associated with plastics and if our reliance on fossil fuel-based plastics remains, plastics will account for 20% of oil consumption by the year 2050. The problem with plastics begins with the mess of extracting fossil fuels from the earth.
Oil, gas, and coal are all required to create these plastics and the fracking process is a devastating one. It involves drilling on and offshore, pipelines, and more. Extraction and transportation of these fossil fuels is a very carbon-intensive process. Authors of the CIEL Report estimated that “12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent are emitted per year while extracting and transporting natural gas to create feedstocks for plastics in the United States.”
According to YaleClimateConnections.org land disturbance also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions associated with extraction. Stating that “About 19.2 million acres have been cleared for oil and gas development 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 clearing, authors of the CIEL report said.” All this land is must be cleared out for these pipelines removing the trees and plant life that we depend on to remove the carbon from the atmosphere.
The end of the plastic cycle is nearly just as bad. Single-use plastics are often disposed of in 3 ways: recycling, landfills, or incineration. And we would be lucky if plastic is sent to a recycling facility, but we also don’t have the current capacity to recycle all plastic sent to these facilities.
So our options are for these plastics to end up in landfills for hundreds to thousands of years or to incinerate them. Yale Climate Connection gives further info into incineration as “the largest climate impact of the three options. According to the CIEL report, U.S. emissions from plastics incineration in 2015 were 5.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Based on projections from the World Energy Council, if plastics production and incineration increase as expected, greenhouse gas emissions will increase to 49 million metric tons by 2030 and 91 million metric tons by 2050.”
While the expansion of landfills is a pressing conflict in itself, if we continue incinerating these amounts of plastics each year, the results can be devastating to our atmosphere. It’s based on this information that we must use more carbon-friendly options in our choice of materials and packaging.