Even in the deepest pit on Earth, at some 35,700 feet beneath the sea, there lies a white plastic bag.
Yet beyond the blight and recycling woes wrought by society’s plastic bag addiction, plastics have an effect that bears heavy weight for the future. Overall, global plastic consumption has quadrupled in the last 40 years, and if the consumption of these fossil fuel-made plastics continues apace, the industry will carry a massive carbon emissions load by 2050.
Specifically, if modern civilization ever manages to cap the planet’s total warming at around 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above 19th century levels — which would limit the worst consequences of a globally disrupted climate — the plastics industry would account for a whopping 15 percent of the total amount of carbon society can expel into the atmosphere. In a world where cars, planes, ships, electrical generation, cement-making, and belching cows all contribute sizable carbon emissions, 15 percent from plastics is an oversized, if not ridiculous, contributor.
Scientists wanted to see how, and if, society might avoid such a future reality. In a study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, they found that limiting carbon emissions from the plastic industry to 2015 levels requires a colossal societal undertaking involving four strategies: cutting growth in demand for plastics by half, making plastic out of plants rather than oil and gas, generating electricity with renewable energy, and increasing recycling.
“We need an unprecedented scale of effort,” said Sangwon Suh, a study coauthor and professor in industrial ecology at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Taken alone, each one of the strategies, even if deployed at extreme levels, cannot solve the plastics’ emissions problem, emphasized Suh. They all must be deployed — which is why we should stop using (and creating demand for) unnecessary plastics.
“Everything is so plastic-oriented,” said Mary Ellen Mallia, the director of environmental sustainability at the State University of New York at University of Albany, who had no role in the study.
But not all plastics are inherently bad. There’s a list of good uses too long to list. They make cars lighter and more efficient, allow us to easily carry around technology, and are used to manufacture emergency medical equipment.
“I don’t believe that we should demonize plastics,” said Suh. “It’s about consumers being aware of the life cycle.”
From their birth to their usual grave in garbage dumps or on the side of the road, plastics today gulp fossil fuels. The start of a plastic’s life requires heating up different oils and gases to produce a plastic resin, which can then be used to shape and build different plastic products. Every plastic we use — in our phones, computers, and water bottles — “goes through multiple industrial processes” to create the desired product we want, explained Suh. That means a big carbon emissions load, though extracting fossil fuels from deep in the ground and transporting truckloads of plastics significantly boosts this number.
“Eventually it arrives in our hands,” said Suh.
“People don’t think about the embedded energy of the products,” added Mallia.
Though the slow-grinding gears of the federal government, especially in the U.S., will likely be sluggish to enact significant movement on slashing carbon emissions, reducing demand for useless plastics is a realizable effort for you and me, the common citizen. But that won’t be easy, either.
“It’s hard because it means changing behavior,” said Mallia.
But to limit carbon emissions from plastics, it must be done in concert with other big efforts. As Suh modeled in the study, the other three strategies can’t solve the problem alone.
One option relies on global civilization completely decarbonizinig the plastic industry by 2050 — which means getting nearly all of our energy from renewable sources, rather than using natural gas or other fossil fuels. But that’s unlikely to happen. In fact, civilization probably won’t even reach the peak of its carbon emissions until 2030.
“Ramping that [renewables] up to 100 percent by 2050 is not realistic, to be honest,” said Suh.
Another option is cranking up plastic recycling so that about half of plastics are reused. Today, around 10 percent of plastics are recycled, noted Suh. So getting to 50 percent is pretty far-fetched, especially when one considers the recent stagnation in recycling. “No significant improvements have been made in the past decade or so,” said Suh.
How about replacing most oil-derived plastics with bio-based plastics, like from corn or sugarcane? These sorts of plastics are extraordinarily rare today. “Ramping that up is near impossible,” said Suh.
The end — and only solution — Suh found is an “aggressive implementation” of all these strategies over the next 30 years. That’s because many plastics aren’t going away. This is all the more apparent in the developing world, where people want and have the right to the same furnishings and technology that’s teeming in the Western world. Plastic demand, then, will grow.
“We have no alternative future that’s obvious to us,” Suh admitted.
Yet, one alternative future is rejecting the ample single-use plastics that inundate modern culture, the kind saturating our seas and decorating our roadways. We don’t have to use them.