The climate impact of plastic pollution is negligible: the production of new plastics is the real problem

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The dual pressures of climate change and plastic pollution are frequently combined in it mediaunder peer review investigation and another environmental reports.

This is understandable. Plastics are largely derived from fossil fuels and the burning of is he main driver of human-caused climate change.

The window to reduce emissions to keep warming internationally agreed levels is closing rapidly and it seems logical to conclude that any “extra” fossil carbon from plastic pollution will be a problem for the climate.

Our investigation examines this question using an Earth system model. We found that carbon leaching from existing plastic pollution has a negligible impact. The biggest concern is the production of new which already represents 4.5% of total global emissions and is expected to increase.

Leaching of organic carbon from plastic pollution

In nature, plants produce (carbon-hydrogen compounds) from inorganic carbon (carbon compounds not bonded with hydrogen) through photosynthesis. Most plastics are made from fossil fuels, which are organic carbon compounds. This organic carbon leaches into the environment from plastics as they degrade.

Concerns have been raised that this could alter the global carbon cycle by acting as an alternative carbon source for bacteria, which consume organic carbon.

A key assumption in these concerns is that organic carbon fluxes and pools have an important influence on the global carbon cycle (and ) on human time scales.

It is true that dissolved organic carbon is an important carbon reserve. In the ocean, it is approximately the same amount as the carbon dioxide (CO₂) contained in the pre-industrial atmosphere. But there are key differences between atmospheric CO₂ and ocean organic carbon storage. One is the climate impact.

Atmospheric CO₂ warms the climate directly, while dissolved organic carbon stored in the ocean is largely inert. This deposit of dissolved organic carbon accumulated over many thousands of years.

When phytoplankton produce organic carbon (or when plastics leach organic carbon), bacteria quickly use up most of it in a matter of hours or days and convert it into dissolved inorganic carbon. The small fraction of organic carbon remaining after bacterial processing is the inert portion that slowly accumulates into a natural reservoir.

Once we recognize that carbon in plastics is best viewed as a source of dissolved inorganic carbon, we can appreciate its lower potential for influence. The ocean’s inorganic carbon stock is 63 times larger than its organic carbon stock.

Carbon from plastics has little impact on atmospheric CO₂

We use an Earth system model to simulate what would happen if we added dissolved to the ocean surface for 100 years. We apply it at a rate equivalent to the amount of carbon projected to leach into the ocean by 2040 (29 million metric tons per year).

This scenario is likely to overestimate the amount of plastic pollution. Current pollution rates are well below this level and a International treaty to limit plastic pollution. is in negotiation.

We repeated the model simulation of adding carbon to plastics both with strong climate warming (to see if carbon from plastics could produce unexpected climate reactions that increase warming) and without it (to see if it could alter the climate on its own ). In both cases, carbon from plastics only increased atmospheric CO₂ concentrations by 1 part per million (ppm) over a century.

This is a very small increase, considering that the current burning of fossil fuels is raising atmospheric CO₂ by more than 2 ppm each year.

Direct emissions from burning plastic

We also examine the impact of plastic incineration. We use a scenario in which all projected plastic will be produced in the year 2050 (1.1 billion metric tons) would be burned and converted directly to atmospheric CO₂ over 100 years.

In this scenario, we find that atmospheric CO₂ increased by just over 21 ppm by the year 2100. This increase is equivalent to the impact of less than nine years of current fossil fuel emissions.

In relation to the current and continued widespread burning of fossil fuels for energy, Emissions from plastic waste will not have significant direct impacts on atmospheric CO₂ levels, no matter what form it takes in the environment.

However, plastic production, unlike leaching or incineration, currently accounts for around 4.5% of total global emissions. As fossil fuel consumption is reduced in other sectors, emissions from plastics production are expected to increase proportional footprint and absolute amount.

A legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, currently in process development As part of the UN environmental programme, it is an excellent opportunity to recognize the growing contribution of plastic production to climate change and seek regulatory measures to address these emissions.

Limiting the use of incineration is another climate-friendly measure that would make a small but positive contribution to the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Of course, environmental pollution from plastics It has many negative impacts beyond climate effects. Our work does not diminish the importance of cleaning. and apply strict measures to prevent it. But the justification for doing so is not primarily based on an effort to reduce emissions.

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Citation: Researchers: The climate impact of plastic pollution is negligible: the production of new plastics is the real problem (2023, October 22) retrieved October 22, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-10 -climate-impact- plastic-pollution-insignificantthe.html

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