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Climate change and energy

Plastic is a climate change problem. There are ways to fix it.

The common material is a growing source of emissions, but a combination of technology and policy could help clean it up.

October 19, 2023
Cows sit and stand in plastic bags and other refuse in the municipal garbage shelter at piyungan landfill, Yogyakarta Indonesia
Getty Images

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Plastic is a huge problem. There, I found it: the most uncontroversial thing I could possibly say to start a newsletter. 

We’ve all seen the images that illustrate the scale of the challenge facing us with plastic waste: a sea turtle eating a plastic bag, people walking through mountains of bottles, and even illustrations showing the sheer size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

But there’s an often-overlooked angle to all this that goes beyond the landfill. Plastics are a big, and quickly growing, problem for the climate. They account for about 3.4% of global greenhouse-gas emissions—more than the entire aviation industry. 

I was thinking about this as I read this gripping feature story on plastics by Douglas Main, which was published last week online and is the cover story for our upcoming magazine issue. You should give the story a read for an outlook on the problem, and what it might take to fix it. And for the newsletter this week, let’s dig into how plastic contributes to greenhouse-gas emissions, and where we go from here. 

What’s the deal with plastic and climate change? 

Plastics fall into a class of materials called petrochemicals, meaning they’re made using fossil fuels. The category also includes products like fertilizers and laundry detergents. 

Fossil fuels are used as a feedstock, or starting ingredient, in plastics production, and they are also used for energy to power the manufacturing process. Plastic made up around 6% of global oil demand as of 2014, according to a report from the World Economic Forum

That number could get much worse, and fast. Plastic consumption could nearly triple by 2060. Add all that up, and plastics could make up 20% of global oil demand or more by 2050. 

So the growing tidal wave of plastic will be a problem for pollution and for waste management. But all that oil demand could also be a roadblock for our climate goals. 

Let’s back up, though, because if you’re anything like me (always craving the details), you’re probably wondering how, exactly, plastic contributes to climate change. Well, let me count the ways.

  • Most plastics are derived from natural gas. Extracting and transporting that natural gas leads to accidental leaks as well as purposeful releases of both carbon dioxide and methane. In the US alone, extracting and transporting natural gas for plastics produces between 12.5 and 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.

So where do we go from here? 

Unfortunately, the problem is so pervasive that there’s no one solution. Of all the plastic we make, 72% ends up in landfills or as litter, while 19% is incinerated and, as of 2019, only 9% is recycled. 

An ideal world would probably be one where much more of the plastic that we use can be reused or recycled in an energy-efficient way. 

Some of the solution comes down to structural changes, like setting up robust collection infrastructure for plastics that are easily recycled today. But packaging makes up only about a third of the plastic we use. And while conventional recycling methods can handle Diet Coke bottles and milk jugs, a lot of other plastic is less visible, and less easily recycled. (Think pleather skirts, wet wipes, or umbrellas—and no, you can’t put any of those in a recycling bin.)

New recycling methods could help remove some of the barriers holding back recycling today. These new technologies, like enzymatic and chemical recycling, might make the process more feasible for more products by cutting down the need to clean and sort waste. 

Ultimately, though, policy will likely be the key to tying all this together, since plastic is cheap today—and recycling often isn’t. 

Plastic is everywhere, and the solution to this massive waste problem is … complicated. Read the full feature story from Douglas Main for more. And for more on the problem of plastic, as well as some of the potential solutions, check out some of our reporting from the vault. 

Related reading

Microplastics are everywhere, and we don’t really know what that means for our health, as my colleague Jess Hamzelou outlined in a story last year. 

Chemists are inventing new ways to recycle, including one method that could tackle a mixture of some of the most common single-use plastics. Read more in my story from last year.

Biologists are getting into the game too—Carbios, a French company, wants to use enzymes to chew up plastics. Check out the full story from 2021. 

Keeping up with climate  

Several popular EVs are now cheaper than the average new gas-powered vehicle in the US. It’s a major tipping point for electric transportation. (Canary Media)

Some experts argue that it’s time to put solar-panel waste in context. This is a great graphic comparing the volume of module waste to things like e-waste, plastics, and coal ash. (Inside Climate News)

→ Some companies are working on setting up systems to recycle solar panels today, before more of them reach the end of their lives. (MIT Technology Review)

More than 50 million miles of power lines and other infrastructure need a major upgrade. Aging grids could hold back countries around the world from reaching climate goals. (The Verge)

The US announced seven projects, or “hubs,” as part of a $7 billion program to advance hydrogen fuel. (Washington Post

→ Hydrogen could help clean up sectors like heavy industry, but most of the fuel is generated using fossil fuels today. Some activists are skeptical of some of the projects that were chosen for the funding. (The Guardian)

Danish wind giant Ørsted just gave a $100 million guarantee that its project in New Jersey will be online by the end of 2025. How’s that for putting your money where your mouth is? (Electrek)

Energy Vault started out with a disruptive idea: storing energy using cranes and massive blocks. Now the startup has pivoted, and largely sells the batteries it set out to displace. (Canary Media)

→ Here’s why some companies are continuing to look beyond batteries for energy storage. (MIT Technology Review

Deep Dive

Climate change and energy

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

Harvard has halted its long-planned atmospheric geoengineering experiment

The decision follows years of controversy and the departure of one of the program’s key researchers.

Why hydrogen is losing the race to power cleaner cars

Batteries are dominating zero-emissions vehicles, and the fuel has better uses elsewhere.

Decarbonizing production of energy is a quick win 

Clean technologies, including carbon management platforms, enable the global energy industry to play a crucial role in the transition to net zero.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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