The production of plastic has skyrocketed in recent decades, using 6% of world oil, emitting GHGs, and inflicting environmental harm to natural habitats and ecosystems. Plastic waste is a big concern as it accounts for 12% of worldwide waste and poses health risks to coastal areas. This article will look at research recently published in Sustainability.
Image Credit: Parilov/Shutterstock.com
Plastic waste that is not properly managed pollutes the environment, harms natural ecosystems, clogs drainage systems, and causes infrastructural problems.
Plastics also break down into minuscule particles known as “microplastics”, which are difficult to collect and can harm food chains and ecosystems.
The GHG emissions related to plastics production for non-durable items are examined using a lifecycle-based methodology applying Project Drawdown Modeling Framework in this study. The impact of decreasing or replacing virgin plastic with other materials is weighed against the impact of avoiding the manufacturing of non-durable plastic.
Virgin, petroleum-based polymers dominate the “conventional” plastics industry, whose effects can be minimized by a variety of interventions that limit or replace conventional plastics.
The fundamental unit of study was a functional unit of 1 million metric tons of plastic manufacture, with the system boundary being a cradle-to-production gate. As shown in Figure 1 and Table 1, key measures to reduce the effect of the plastics market have been identified and prioritized.
Figure 1. Roadmap for reducing the conventional practice of virgin plastics production through multiple interventions. Image Credit: Jankowska, et al., 2022
Table 1. Interventions to reduce the climate impact of the plastic market. Source: Jankowska, et al., 2022
|Plastic Reduction (via e.g., elimination and reuse).
||Reduction of plastic production by eliminating unnecessary items and over-packaging, expanding reuse options that can replace utility currently provided by plastic, including products intended for consumers to reuse, and new delivery models such as refill systems and deposit schemes.
|Replace with paper-based materials (e.g., paper, coated paper).
||Substitution of plastic used in non-durable goods with recyclable paper or other fiber-based material ensuring the new material delivers the same quality as plastic.
|Replace with recycled plastics (from post-consumer waste).
||Substitution of virgin plastic used in non-durable goods with plastic coming from recycling.
|Replace with bioplastics (defined as bio-based or biodegradable plastics).
||Substitution of virgin plastic used in non-durable goods with bioplastic or other bio-based compostables ensuring the new material delivers the same quality as plastic.
Plastic production will contribute considerably to global GHG emissions in 2050, according to this report, which combines fresh research findings from numerous studies.
Based on published sources for historical, present, and future predicted adoption scenarios, the CO2-eq impacts of viable solutions relative to conventional plastics manufacturing are quantified. Three scenarios are created, each with varying amounts of increased adoption as compared to a baseline scenario.
Plausible, ambitious, and maximal are the three adoption scenarios. The total lowered emissions from the actions are represented by the delta of the resultant emissions footprints.
In a plausible scenario, interventions are implemented at a rapid pace that is both ambitious and feasible.
In the ambitious scenario, the adoption of interventions has grown to the high end of the estimates, indicating that the plausible scenario has progressed.
The maximal scenario denotes the highest estimated adoption rate.
Four sources are used to calculate the Total Adoption Market (TAM) for all plastic demanded between 2014 and 2050. Non-durable items with an average life duration of fewer than three years are included, as are durable goods with a life span of up to 50 years.
Durable plastics do not constitute a large amount of trash that ends up in the environment due to their extended lifespan; hence, there is less interest in reducing or substituting solutions.
Plastic minimization is a top goal for a variety of reasons, including the utmost CO2-eq reductions, avoiding upstream emissions related to distribution, and avoiding garbage collection and disposal. To reduce plastic manufacturing, a number of initiatives have been proposed.
The adoption of Plastic Reduction initiatives (in %) from every source is measured to the common functional unit of MMt plastic produced and aggregated to calculate the impact on the TAM, with varying degrees of ambition depending on the situation.
After giving a portion of the plastic market to Plastic Reduction, the remaining 90% can be used to research three alternative treatments. Paper substitutes, recycled feedstock substitutes, and bioplastic substitutes are all viable options.
All of these treatments are feasible to implement based on estimates taken from available research and do not exceed the entire TAM.
146 data points from 34 sources were utilized to compute the CO2 emissions footprint of plastics manufacturing, paper manufacture, recycled plastic production, and bioplastic production.
These numbers were double-checked and averaged. Table 2 includes these emissions parameters, as well as the standard deviation from the meta-analysis and the quantity of data obtained and examined.
Table 2. CO2-eq emission factors for all interventions used in the analysis; n/a, not applicable. Source: Jankowska, et al.,2022
|Units MMt CO2/MMT of Production
||Number of Data Points
|Recycled Feedstock Replacement
The CO2-equivalent emissions reductions from each intervention are estimated using the intervention’s adoption in MMt of plastic generated throughout the time period in question (2020–2050) and the intervention’s emissions factor per functional unit.
The minimized plastics intervention determines what the baseline CO2-eq emissions would have been if that quantity of traditional plastics had been produced from 2020 to 2050, and assumes that a complete reduction would result in zero-production phase emissions:
R=EFCP × Ai
where R is the drop in CO2-equivalent emissions of the intervention I, EFCP is the Emissions Factor of Conventional Plastics, and Ai is the adoption of the intervention i (Plastic Reduction) over the 2020–2050 period.
Overpackaging will be eliminated, reuse will be promoted, and alternative delivery methods, such as refill stations, will be implemented as part of the Plastics Reduction initiative. While elimination does not need any CO2-eq emissions, the reuse and new distribution models do have some emissions related to the material manufacturing and usage phase, for example, the installation of refill stations.
Since the emissions do not fall inside our system boundary, they are not measured in the current analysis.
Other CO2-eq emissions reductions are determined based on the substitution of the alternative material for the traditional material, as follows:
R=(EFCP−EFi) × Ai
where EFi stands for the Emissions Factor of the replacement technology: paper, recycled feedstock, or bioplastics.
Electricity production, transportation, agriculture, and food systems are just a few of the interconnected sectors addressed by the Project Drawdown Modeling Framework. It eliminates duplicate counting in the plastics industry as well as across the system.
Each of the four interventions is constructed with different levels of ambition in mind, and then grouped into three main scenarios: plausible, ambitious, and maximum. Depending on the scenario, plastics reduction adoption is expected to achieve between 1592 and 3786 MMt in 2020–2050.
Due to data availability constraints, the adoption of Paper Replacement, the second prioritized intervention, is considered to need the same degree of ambition across scenarios, resulting in a constant value of 1471 MMt 2020–2050 for all three scenarios, as depicted in Table 3.
Table 3. Total reduction and replacement of plastics production (MMt) and total climate impact (Gt CO2-eq) from all four interventions under three scenarios between 2020–2050. Source: Jankowska, et al., 2022
||MMt plastic eliminated
||Gt CO2-eq reduced
||MMt plastic eliminated
||Gt CO2-eq reduced
||MMt plastic eliminated
||Gt CO2-eq reduced
|Recycled Feedstock Replacement
Between 2020 and 2050, several actions result in considerable CO2-eq emissions reductions. Depending on the circumstances, plastic reductions have the biggest potential, ranging from 4.0 to 9.5 Gt CO2-eq.
Since there are insufficient studies with relevant data to generate more than one scenario, paper replacement resulted in a reduction of 1.4 Gt CO2-eq across all scenarios.
Recycled Feedstock Replacement provides a larger emission reduction potential, ranging from 2.4 to 3.6 Gt CO2-eq. Bioplastics Replacement has a similar impact, ranging from 1.7 to 3.0 Gt CO2-eq.
Plastic Reductions have the biggest potential decrease, and Figure 2 shows the difference in yearly adoption for each scenario.
Figure 2. Annual emission reduction from applying Integrated Plastic System interventions. Total emission reduction coming from each intervention achieved between 2020–2050 in three scenarios is displayed within the graph in Gt CO2-eq over the time period. Image Credit: Jankowska, et al., 2022
Lower manufacturing of plastics through reduced demand and alternative distribution systems, recycled plastic, and substitution with other materials are all viable options for enhancing the sustainability of the plastics system (paper, bioplastic).
These actions might lower emissions by 1.5% of what is required to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals.
The study looks at the technological feasibility of modifying the plastics manufacturing system, but it does not look at the economic feasibility. The hazards of continuing to produce plastic in the same manner outweigh the benefits.
Plastics are employed in a variety of sectors, including aviation and medical, but 60% of plastic is used in single-use packaging or domestic items with a limited lifespan, which ends up as landfill debris. This has a number of detrimental consequences for human health and the environment.
Open burning is still frequent, releasing airborne particulates, carcinogens, and other contaminants into the air. Furthermore, plastic winds up in the seas, where it clogs up coastlines, forms floating islands, sinks to the deep sea, and degrades into impossible-to-collect microplastics.
It endangers numerous marine species and has a negative impact on the fishing sector.
As illustrated in Figure 3, eliminating virgin plastics from packaging is critical for limiting plastic pollution and improving the livelihoods of many nations.
Figure 3. Socio-economic and environmental benefits from applying Integrated Plastic System solutions. Image Credit: Jankowska, et al., 2022
Plastic manufacturers must create an integrated approach integrating different actions to reach the climate objectives established in the Paris Agreement. This method eliminates duplicate counting in the plastics sector and across the system.
By creating new employment and reducing the quantity of unmanaged garbage and plastic waste seeping into the terrestrial and aquatic environment, Integrated Plastic System interventions can be linked to particular aims of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as explained in Figure 4.
Figure 4. Integrated Plastic System solutions and its links to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Image Credit: Jankowska, et al., 2022
Interventions aimed at reducing plastic pollution have major negative repercussions for the environment as well as human health. Limiting the manufacturing of non-durable plastic items can cut GHG emissions by 9.5–14.9 Gt CO2-eq over the next 30 years, helping to address the climate problem.
Lower production of plastics due to reduced demand and multiple distribution methods has the greatest climatic impact, followed by recycled plastic, and finally replacement with other materials (paper, bioplastic), which has the least potential for reducing emissions.
Many more advantages for humans and the environment will result from changing the plastic system, including aiding in the achievement of 13 Sustainable Development Goals.
Looking at the crisis of plastic pollution through the lens of the climate crisis opens up a slew of possibilities for politicians and other stakeholders to spur action toward a plastic-free future.
Jankowska, E, Gorman, M. R. and Frischmann, C. J. (2022) Transforming the Plastic Production System Presents Opportunities to Tackle the Climate Crisis. Sustainability. 14(11), 6539 Available Online: https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/14/11/6539/htm
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