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Project Overview

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Informal waste collector among discarded plastic bags. Photo credit National Geographic 

Scientists know that plastics - and the petrochemicals in them, have climate change impacts. But we don’t know how much of a temperature rise they may cause[1] With increasing plastic production, use, and waste generation, these climate impacts will also increase. Even many “bio” and compostable plastics affect the climate, but it is unclear to what extent. In addition, a number of climate impacts from plastics are not included in any greenhouse gas emissions inventories, climate models, or scenarios, including those published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

Therefore, the goal of The Plastics & Climate Project is to estimate the extent to which plastics and their associated petrochemicals contribute to global average temperature rise. The Project will pinpoint the gaps in knowledge that need to be filled in order to achieve this goal, and develop a research agenda to fill in the data gaps. The Project will disseminate the findings to the scientific community, policymakers, advocates, and the public, and generate support for the necessary subsequent research and inclusion of climate-relevant plastic impacts in relevant accounting. An advisory board composed of science and policy experts will provide input at key points throughout the Project, and enable communication and coordination among other people and institutions working on complementary issues. 

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Project Rationale
& Deliverables

Greenhouse gases and other industrial emissions. Photo credit Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash

Though the connections between climate change and plastics are becoming more widely discussed among activists and policymakers, little quantitative data exists[2] As fossil fuels are the main feedstock for petrochemicals and 99% of plastics, plastics inherently have climate impacts similar to other fossil-fuel based industries. However, plastics also have unique climate impacts, especially when they become unmanaged waste. The degree to which plastics are contributing to climate change throughout their life cycle is unknown.

Our literature review and research agenda will include all types of plastics to the extent possible, including conventional fossil-based plastics and bioplastics including bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics. These categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, biodegradable plastics may be partly derived from fossil fuels, and compostable plastics may release greenhouse gases or affect carbon sequestration at different phases of their life cycle.

There are three main ways in which plastics may impact the rate and severity of global climate change

  • Emissions of multiple greenhouse gases and black carbon [3] throughout the lifecycle of plastics, including from the extraction, production, distribution, and end-of-life treatment, (including different types of recycling, burning, and environmental degradation)

  • Interference with global carbon cycling, including the functioning of ocean, soil, and plant carbon sinks

  • Alteration of the Earth’s radiation budget due to the plastic particles covering the Earth's surface

More facts

  • If the plastics industry were a country, it would be at least the 5th largest emitter of greenhouse gases - after China, the US, India and Russia [4]

  • The plastics industry is on track to release more greenhouse gases than coal plants in the US by 2030, including millions of tons of methane [5]  

  • Plastics appear to be harming the ocean's ability to absorb carbon [6], as well as soils’ and plants’ [7], and add toxins to those environments and the air [8] we breathe.

  • Plastics and petrochemicals are harming human health, especially for frontline and environmental justice communities near fossil fuel extraction and plastics manufacturing facilities [9] 

The Plastics & Climate Project consists of the following elements:

  • Systematic literature review and meta-analysis to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The review will assess the current state of data regarding the quantitative relationship between plastics and climate change, i.e., how much plastics contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, how they affect carbon cycling including sequestration, and how they impact radiative forcing factors of the Earth

  • Research agenda and proposed experiments needed to address the data and knowledge gaps identified through the review 

  • Peer-reviewed paper in the scientific literature

  • Report summarizing findings and recommendations 

  • Symposia and webinars with leading scientists, research funders, policymakers, NGOs, and other stakeholders including the EJ community, to present the climate and plastics issue, and discuss project findings and recommendations, including policy recommendations

  • Articles, press releases, and social media to share findings and recommendations with lay audiences, policymakers, activists and the media

  • Website that serves as an ongoing repository for papers, reports, articles and recordings on the plastics/climate nexus

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