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  • Writer's pictureThe Circulate Initiative

The Link Between Plastic Pollution and Climate Change

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

iceberg and ocean Photo by Kristoffer Brink Jonsson from Pexels

Climate change and plastic pollution are undoubtedly two of the most pressing environmental crises we face globally today. While they may seem like two separate issues, they are in fact intricately intertwined.

Plastic waste – especially when mismanaged – is contributing to climate change. According to research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, around 18 percent of methane emissions worldwide come from waste materials in landfills. Managing plastic waste effectively can shift the dial significantly.

Research by Circulate Capital found that if the plastic leakage problem can be addressed in India and Indonesia, almost 150 million tonnes of GHG can be prevented by 2030.

Whether it be investing in circular systems, looking at ways to reduce plastic leakage or how we can generate GHG savings, it’s important these are not done in siloes, but rather looked at holistically. After all, they are all interconnected – solving the plastic pollution issue directly impacts our GHG emissions. And to do any of this, the first step is possessing the right knowledge and tools that guide better decision-making and evaluate impact.

To support those looking for resources that can help optimize plastics circularity and climate benefit, The Circulate Initiative has included in its Knowledge Bank, a repository for research and resources that can help us better understand and measure the impact of solutions and initiatives that are focused on addressing plastic waste, fighting climate change and advancing the circular economy.

Focusing on tangible solutions that address plastic waste and climate change

Below are four sources of research we’ve identified that can inform thinking, overall discussion, and actions as we focus on tangible solutions that address plastic waste and climate change.

The Review of Plastic Footprint Methodologies by Boucher, Dubois, Kounina and Puydarrieux analyzed 19 existing and emerging methodologies that identify the abundance, distribution, types, sources, pathways, and sinks of plastic pollution at different scales.

The researchers found that while approaches are many, critically lacking is a standardized methodology that can assess the quantity of plastic leaking into oceans and approaches to measure its negative impact on ecosystems and human health. The research highlights an urgent need to adopt a holistic approach for plastic pollution measurement, which includes the entire value chain of plastic products, their life cycles, and climate impact. To help precipitate this change, the report offers actionable recommendations for the development of a standard set of indicators that shed light around the costs of inaction and spot investment opportunities to advance the circular plastic economy.

In addition to a standardized measurement framework, it is also becoming increasingly clear that we won’t be able to solve the plastic or climate change issue without collaboration from the global community. This sparked the Convention on Plastic Pollution - Toward a New Global Agreement to Address Plastic Pollution, commissioned by the Environmental Investigation Agency that highlights the necessity of a dedicated convention focused on plastic pollution that takes into account the full lifecycle of plastics, from production and design all the way to waste prevention and management. This dedicated convention also plans to also build upon and complement existing regional and global methods already in place. The convention is a platform to share core competencies and identify gaps to fill to prevent plastic leakage into oceans and promote a safe circular economy for plastics which ultimately helps fight climate change.

As understanding the lifecycle of plastics is critical to evaluating the impact of plastics on climate, we are also witnessing an increase in the body of knowledge on lifecycle assessments connected with plastics and solutions to tackling plastic waste. Hsien H Khoo from the Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences conducted a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of plastic waste recovery into recycled materials, energy and fuels in Singapore. Through the research, he concluded that, given the complex nature of plastic waste mixtures, mechanical recycling is often inefficient in Singapore and as a result, the majority of waste is burned. To address this issue, the research investigates eight options for plastic waste management, such as recovering valuable fuels from plastics through thermochemical methods, as alternatives to incineration.

The findings highlight how different combinations of four plastics valorization technologies and associated capacities influence potential environmental benefits and articulates some of the drawbacks of plastic waste treatment systems. Country-specific research such as this one highlights how conditions on the ground impact solutions and the overall climate, reiterating the importance of a tailored approach for different geographies.

Another option for managing plastic waste is reducing consumption from the get-go. Reuse Wins: The Environmental, Economic, and Business Case for Transitioning From Single-Use to Reuse in Food Service by Miriam Gordon at Upstream looked at lifecycle studies comparing the environmental impact of disposable versus reusable plastics and estimated the potential cost savings of transitioning to a new reuse economy. Contrasted with the current $24 billion spent on disposables by restaurants and food and beverage operators per year in the United States, the research found $5 billion can be saved, and 86 percent of disposables can be avoided by replacing them with disposable-free on-site dining materials as well as reuse services for take-out and delivery.

What’s more important, the team found reusable foodware beats single-use on every environmental measure, generating savings on climate impact, water consumption, resource extraction, waste generation, and plastic pollution. The findings hit home how reducing plastic and opting for reusable options protect the climate, given reusables have much lower greenhouse gas emissions over their life cycle than disposable alternatives, which generate three to ten times more CO2.

These reports and frameworks in our repository serve as a starting point for those looking to better understand the intersection of plastics pollution and climate change, as well as the opportunities for action. We are convinced that gathering and sharing knowledge helps drive the conversation and progress forward.

If you have resources related to the topic of plastic pollution, including research on solid waste management, climate, human rights of waste pickers, ocean health, capital markets, and global supply chains, please share these with us through the Knowledge Bank. We welcome your ideas on how we can partner to fight climate change and plastic pollution as a collective.


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