Although mass production of plastics began about 70 years ago, humans tapped into naturally derived plastics long before that. About 3,500 years ago, the Olmec culture was thriving on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Famous for their carved colossal heads, the Olmecs also shaped primitive plastics made with a natural polymer extracted from the sap of gum trees. Today, human-made plastics are derived from fossil fuels and the production rate is expected to double in twenty years and triple by 2050. This reliance on fossil fuel derived plastics (especially single-use plastic) has been a key contributor to climate change.
Plastic releases a smorgasbord of toxic chemicals as it decomposes, resulting in dire consequences for animals, plants and the environment. One study estimates that by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean. Specifically, straws, grocery bags, and packaged products make up 40% of plastic waste that is rarely recycled. Rather, this waste is sent to our community landfills and even our oceans.
One of the common ways to make plastic is through “cracking.” When land is fracked to produce fossil fuels, a global-warming, air-polluting ethane gas is produced as a byproduct. Cracking facilities—also known as “crackers”—convert ethane to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene plastic. Crackers, like so much of the climate change causing infrastructure, are often constructed in or near communities with less wealth and less political influence—compounding issues of environmental and social injustice. In the next ten years, 263 new cracking plants are planned to be built in the Gulf Coast and the Mid-Atlantic regions.
A recent study conducted at the University of Hawaii reported that as plastics decay, they emit methane and ethylene, two powerful greenhouse gases. Sunlight triggers these emissions, which contaminate both our air and our water. The researchers tested plastics found in construction materials, textiles, food storage and other kinds of products.
“Our results show that plastics represent a heretofore unrecognized source of climate-relevant trace gases that are expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment.” (The authors of the University of Hawaii study)
The chemical industry counts on ethylene, and its production in 2016 exceeded 150 million tons—more than any other organic compound. A chunk of it is used to produce polyethylene-based shopping bags (the plastic bags of the iconic “paper or plastic?” question). Polyethylene waste is not passive as it releases dangerous additives and other degradation products into the environment throughout its lifetime of decay.
Are we stuck with single-us plastic or are there solutions?
“Given the expected growth in plastic production worldwide, it is important for plastics manufacturers, as well as governments wrestling to curb climate change, to understand the extent of methane and ethylene emissions from plastic and their impact on ecosystems,” says Niklas Hagelberg, a climate change expert at the United Nations Environment Programme.
In 2017, the United Nations Environment Programme launched the #BeatPlasticPollution campaign partnering with governments, organizations and community activists aiming for a plastic-free environment. And this year, National Geographic asked the world to take the Planet or Plastic? pledge. Changing our single-use plastic habits is a key part of these campaigns and other initiatives.
Communities and countries are reducing waste by banning, taxing, or otherwise limiting the use of single-use plastic bags.
Thirty-two (and counting) countries have plastic bag bans and almost half of them are located on the African continent, where clogged drains ignite mosquito swarms—leading to the spread of malaria. In China, a ban adopted in 2008 has led to a 40 billion bag reduction. India, where cows often died from the plastic ingestion, established a ban in 2002. Eighteen other countries tax plastics instead of banning them. Ireland’s plastic bag tax reduced usage by as much as 90%. Portugal’s use has declined by 85%. Denmark put a tax in place in 2003 and has the lowest plastic usage in Europe, averaging just 4 bags per person per year.
In the United States, only two states, California and Hawaii, have banned plastic bags on a statewide level. Four states—Maine, New York, Rhode Island, and Delaware—have mandatory recycling or reuse programs in place. Two hundred municipalities have banned or are taxing plastic bags. Saying no to single-use plastic can be done on the individual level. The Plastic Pollution Coalition is a good place to start for information and to take action.
Beyond banning and taxing single-use plastic, other innovative solutions to the plastic problem are now available. Organisms like waxworms and mealworms can dine on plastics and transform them into compost. A newly discovered microbe reduces the time it takes for plastic to degrade from hundreds of years to just a few days.
In addition, manufacturers are working hard to make plant-based packaging and products that will replace conventional plastics. These innovative companies are utilizing all natural products that degrade faster and cleaner in our environments. Even better, they are pushing the envelope further by developing edible single-use products—meaning you can eat your spoon or your cup when you are finished. So, next time when you say “all done” you won’t just mean the food, you will also mean the plastic pollution. Small changes can add up. Choosing to eliminate or greatly reduce your dependency on conventional plastic products is an everyday action that you can take to ensure a pollution-free future.
This article was originally published by the Outrider Post and republished with permission as a part of a partnership between The Rising and the Outrider Foundation.
The Outrider Foundation is a non-profit organization focused on advancing science-based literacy on global risks that affect the well-being of the planet. Content posted on this column has been syndicated from the Outrider Post as a part of a partnership between The Rising and the Outrider Foundation.
World War Zero: Leonardo DiCaprio, John Kerry, And Others Start Climate Coalition
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Leonardo DiCaprio and others, have started a climate coalition called World War Zero to combat climate change. By spreading the word, Kerry’s team hopes to add to the momentum of the climate activism movement. Along with Greta Thunberg’s push for action, World War Zero intends to inform people around the country about the devastating effects of climate change.
What The World War Zero Coalition Entails
Under President Trump’s administration, the US will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord in a year. Of course, most Americans aren’t happy with the decision. Still, the Trump administration plans to leave the accord.
Trump claims that “The Paris accord will undermine the economy.” The withdrawal, however, will undermine the effects of climate change.
Desiring to better inform individuals, John Kerry and his partners hope to create more initiative for climate activism.
With big names such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Clinton, the coalition aims to “Mobilize an army of people who are going to demand action now on climate change sufficient to meet the challenge.”
Specifically, members of the union will travel to many places to spread the word about climate change. From traveling to swing states before the 2020 elections to military bases, individuals can learn about climate issues.
Moreover, representatives of the coalition can advertise their personal opinion on the topic.
Why The Work Matters
In an interview with the New York Times, Kerry stated that the World War Zero coalition isn’t attempting to propose a specific plan. There are people who believe in many different plans in this coalition.
While free to advertise these proposals, the World War Zero coalition shares a universal goal: to simply inform the public. Katie Eder, a member of the coalition, stated that “collaboration is key to our survival.”
Furthermore, people may create a unified understanding of the detriments of climate change by hearing the many different proposals.
In a bleak report by the UN, the richest countries in the world aren’t doing enough to lower carbon emissions. Another report also illustrates that global emissions today are extraordinarily off track from achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement.
By using the “World War” rhetoric, Kerry hopes to display the global risk that climate change poses to everyone.
There Needs To Be An Attitude Shift
A change in attitude towards climate change is imperative. Companies and politicians are constantly making promises. However, in the end, only action will truly make a difference.
Like John Kerry’s World War Zero coalition, the spread of information is among the most important methods of initiating action. Along with the movement started by Greta Thunberg, Kerry’s coalition proves that the momentum for change is building up.
Most Australians Want Businesses To Be Fully Powered By Renewables, Poll Finds
A whopping 68.5 percent of respondents urged Australian businesses to source power entirely from renewables, according to a uComms poll. Moreover, the poll also found that 78.9 percent of people wanted businesses to use more solar and wind energy. Additionally, some 65.7 percent said they would be more likely to buy products or services from companies that do so. It is safe to say that the poll is a signal.
Australians Want More Action On Climate Change And Pivot Towards Renewables
The poll finds Australians want the business community to do more to integrate renewables into their energy mix.
“This poll clearly shows that the overwhelming majority of Australians want businesses and corporations to step up and take action on climate change,” Lindsay Soutar, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, says in a media statement.
He was quick to point out Australia’s over-reliance on the fossil fuel industry. Consequently, he believes the issue is something the business community needs to address.
“The biggest driver of climate change in Australia is coal, which is still burned to make a large amount of our electricity.
“As some of Australia’s biggest users of electricity, businesses and corporations have an obligation to clean up their act and make the move to 100% renewable energy,” he added.
Businesses Respond To Call For Renewables
There are many examples of Australian businesses that are already committing to change towards a renewable energy future. One is the banking and investment firm Macquarie Group. The company recently announced it has joined a new sustainability initiative.
It is the RE100 initiative, which encourages influential businesses to source their entire energy supply from renewables.
“Macquarie will seek to develop projects to supply the green energy for its new Sydney headquarters and Melbourne office,” said the bank in a recent media release. “Macquarie has been carbon neutral in sourcing its energy supply since 2010 through the purchase of carbon credits.”
“The commitment from Macquarie Group means that it now joins the ‘Big Four’ Australian banks in agreeing to source all of their electricity consumption from renewable sources under the RE100 initiative.”
Macquarie Continues To Support Fossil Fuel Investments
However, while Macquerie’s public pledge to source 100 percent of its energy from renewables has been applauded, others remain skeptical. Even some of Macquerie’s own shareholders question Macquarie’s continued investment in fossil fuels.
Market Forces reported that Macquarie’s shareholders have grilled the company over its financial backing of oil, gas and coal projects. After all, why would it do so after announcing a global risk scenario analysis on climate change?
Al Gore Calls Climate Change The “Single Biggest Investment Opportunity In History”
At a recent event in San Francisco, former Vice President Al Gore spoke about the economic benefits of dealing with climate change now, rather than putting it off or trying to avoid it altogether. According to Gore, one way to motivate people to fund research for and invest in new solutions to climate change is the shift the way we are looking at the problem. For some, the monetary motivation of framing climate change as “the single biggest investment opportunity in history” may help them get behind the cause.
How big does Al Gore estimate the solution of this problem to be? To put things in perspective, he claimed that “the sustainability revolution has the magnitude of the agricultural and industrial revolutions but the speed of the digital revolution.”
Al Gore’s Involvement In Climate Activism
Al Gore is not a newcomer to climate activism. Though his activism began when he was a politician, one of Gore’s more famous pushes for climate action was his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, released in 2006.
Now, Al Gore gives frequent talks all over the country. He also puts on a climate awareness event called “24 hours of reality”. This year’s event just occurred on this past Wednesday and Thursday.
So, What Is The Payoff?
It’s difficult to quantify the exact payoff of resolving the climate crisis. However, it is not too difficult to imagine the losses that would occur if current emissions and pollution rates continue.
The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that the global economy would undoubtably shrink. Current estimates hover around 3% in the next 30 years if climate change goes untreated.
However, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in August, the growth per capita could decrease by 10.5% by the end of the century without climate change action starting now.
A Problem Too Costly To Ignore
Letting the problem of global warming sit for the next 81 years could also have direct costs to nations across the world as we attempt to deal with repercussions. The most costly and evident now include dealing with natural disasters and increased premature death.
Other concerns include lost property on coasts due to rising sea levels and lost wages due to heat waves.
Specifically in the United States, The Fourth National Climate Assessment predicted some dire impacts by the end of the century. Some of the highest costs would come from heat-related deaths at an estimated $141 billion.
Another is lost wages in outdoor industries due to heat waves at $155 billion, and lost coastal property at $118 billion.
A Look Forward
The biggest reasons for fighting climate change shouldn’t be purely economical. Instead, they should be rooted in the ethical obligation of maintaining the planet for ourselves and our posterity. However, different arguments can spur more action and persuade a larger audience to fight for change.
Thus, looking at climate change from an economic perspective might help to foster changes to prevent tragedy.
If we deal with climate change effectively and with a strong commitment, then we can reap the benefits. If we let the problem sit and grow worse, then we will pay the price.
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