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Plastics and Climate

Understanding the Links Between Plastics and Climate Change

Plastic pollution is a climate problem for our ocean and coastal communities—we must stop it at the source.

Every year, 11 million metric tons of plastic leak into the ocean, polluting our coastlines, cities and waterways. We often focus on where these plastics end up—but to solve the problem, we have to look upstream to where plastic production begins. 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels—plastic waste is just another form of pollution from the fossil fuel industry along with significant greenhouse gas emissions. The plastic pollution crisis is also a climate crisis for our ocean and coastal communities.

The Problem

Plastics are made from and powered by fossil fuels—oil, gas and coal. Globally, we use as much oil to make plastic as we do for global aviation. By 2050, 20% of our oil use will be for plastics. As we transition away from fossil fuels for energy and towards a clean energy future, the fossil fuel industry is investing its vast financial resources to increase new plastic production as demand for plastics continues to grow. If we don’t reduce how much plastic we make and use, we won’t be able to leave behind fossil fuels and their devastating impacts on the climate as well as our ocean and communities.

Already, plastics are responsible for 3-4% of global greenhouse gas emissions; if they continue to grow, this will triple by 2050. Further, microplastics—tiny plastic particles and fibers—can harm bacteria and plankton in the ocean. These organisms are essential for absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and are a big reason why the ocean has effectively moderated Earth’s climate throughout history. Unless we reduce plastics, we’ll not only produce more emissions, but we’ll also damage the natural systems that are helping to slow climate change—a combination that will spell disaster for global efforts to limit climate change to livable levels that will keep our ocean and communities healthy.

When I think about my personal climate impact, I usually think about flights, or my car. Now I think about plastics in the same way. We can’t get off of fossil fuels unless we make less plastic.

Aarthi Ananthanarayanan

Aarthi Ananthanarayanan

Director, Climate and Plastics Initiative

Growing plastic production is a major problem for coastal communities that already experience some of the damaging impacts of climate change: flooding, sea level rise and more extreme hurricanes. The petrochemical infrastructure that produces plastics is often coastal energy infrastructure—oil and gas production, refining and export facilities—that emits significant air and water pollution with severe health consequences for neighboring communities including asthma, cancer, endocrine disruption, developmental disorders and heart disease. Extreme weather, sea level rise and flooding increase risks to these facilities, making accidents and unpermitted pollution releases more likely and increasing the amount of plastics and chemical pollution entering our communities, waterways and ocean. Reducing plastic pollution will help communities stay healthy and resilient in the face of worsening climate change impacts.

The Solution

Building a strong, just and clean energy economy for our ocean and coastal communities requires that we stop the growth of virgin, or new, plastic production. We must work quickly to bring plastics into clean energy policies, slow investment in new plastics production and shift to circular business models.

We have a lot of momentum to build on: investors managing more than half of the world’s assets committed to the Paris Climate Agreement goals. The United States has made a major investment in the clean energy economy through the 2022 landmark Inflation Reduction Act. California, the fifth largest economy in the world, passed legislation requiring 25% less single-use plastics by 2032. And governments around the world are beginning negotiations on a legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution. The thing is, these conversations about plastics and fossil fuels are happening completely separate from each other. But we can’t have a robust conversation about fighting climate change and ending our reliance on fossil fuels without talking about the impact of plastics.

To stop the linked threats of climate change and plastic pollution, we urge governments, investors and corporations to make plastic reduction a key part of their climate action. Together we can:

Stop plastics growth as a key strategy in advancing the clean energy transition:

Create accountability and transparency around the impacts of plastics through climate commitments, sustainable investing, and policy:

Dramatically reduce plastics use and advance the circular economy:

Final Thought

Our ocean and coastal communities are bearing the brunt of the impacts from both plastic pollution and climate change. By accelerating the clean energy transition, we can achieve a healthier ocean, protected by a more just world.

For more information, please contact Aarthi Ananthanarayanan.

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