"What does plastic pollution have to do with climate change? They both have their root in fossil fuels."
— Anna Cummins, 5 Gyres Institute
The United States and China, the two largest contributors to climate change, industrialized through burning fossil fuels. When they reached a certain level of industrialization, massive amounts of disposable plastics began flowing into their economies—water bottles, bags, to-go containers and utensils—items that earmark a consumer culture. More consumerism results in more waste, which can pose an even greater threat in newly industrialized countries with waste infrastructures that lag behind their growing consumption rates.
The plastics industry is one driver of the world’s fossil fuel consumption. Approximately 8% of global oil production goes toward manufacturing plastics. Plastics are made from oil and natural gas which when extracted from the earth release toxic emissions like methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates as many as 5 ounces of carbon dioxide are emitted for each ounce of polyethylene (PET) produced—one of the most commonly used plastics.
While the importance of the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, in this case regarding the production and transportation of products, cannot be understated, reducing and managing our waste when goods are disposed of is equally important.
Solid waste generation rates are rising fast, particularly in cities with increasing population rates and higher economic activity, resulting in rising costs and environmental impacts. The waste from cities around the world is already enough to fill a line of trash trucks over 3,000 miles long every day. Worldwide, waste rates are expected to triple by 2100, exceeding 11 million tons per day. The global cost of dealing with all that trash is rising too, from $205 billion a year in 2010 to $375 billion by 2025, with the sharpest cost increases in developing countries. Where does this waste go when it is thrown “away?” It is littered, landfilled, recycled, composted, or burned for energy, all which have their own environmental footprint.
The solution to the climate change issue will be new renewable energy technology that drives fossil fuels from the marketplace. Similarly, the solution to waste management will rely on new technology. Many cities around the world are implementing innovative measures to deal with waste, and are increasingly incorporating waste management into sustainability plans. Some examples include zero waste programs and more aggressive recycling, waste disposal fees and other charges to encourage waste reduction, reducing food waste with better storage and transportation, and construction strategies that increase reuse of materials. Many places have banned the use of plastic shopping bags and some are requiring that stores charge for the use of bags.
Other solutions to waste management are non-technological. They involve designing products that can be easily reconditioned and reused, and designing a post-consumption process that brings the product back to the manufacturer. As with many other sustainability issues, one element of the solution involves people's values and behavior. As California Governor Jerry Brown put it, “We’re faced with a challenge in our beliefs, and a challenge in how we live.” For instance, it’s more convenient to accept single-use items then to remember to bring a reusable bag or utensils. There are limits to the amount of time and energy most people are willing to devote to managing their own garbage and also system limits to what is possible. But if each of these individual parts of the whole can step up, from the consumer to the corporations to waste management infrastructure, we can truly make the shift necessary to sustain life on earth.
Also according to Governor Brown, “the enormity of the problem is matched only by the immensity of the changes necessary to deal with it, calling for nothing less than a radical transformation of life on earth,” and “instead of being a burden, it’s really an opportunity to live lighter on the planet.” For the world to reduce its carbon output, he continued, “we’re talking about a different kind of life, a life not based on oil, and a life not based on so much emphasis on the individual as opposed to the common good.”