What you need to know:
- There is an inextricable connection between plastic production and the climate crisis. Plastics contribute about six per cent of all industrial carbon emissions.
- But that is only half the problem. The plastic manufacturing process consumes 14 per cent of all oil produced in the world, making plastics one of the biggest petrochemicals.
Chances are you are seated on a plastic chair, drinking from a plastic cup or water bottle. Obviously, you are holding a plastic pen. If your breakfast was packaged in plastic, you are unlikely to reuse it.
Whether at home or in the office, when you look around you, plastics clearly outnumber any other material. Ironically, though, plastic pollution has so far received minimal attention, considering its significance to climate change.
There is an inextricable connection between plastic production and the climate crisis. Plastics contribute about six per cent of all industrial carbon emissions. But that is only half the problem. The plastic manufacturing process consumes 14 per cent of all oil produced in the world, making plastics one of the biggest petrochemicals.
From altering habitats and natural processes to reducing the ability of ecosystems to adapt to climate change, clogging drainage systems and choking our water bodies, plastics are one of the biggest disasters of our time.
The consequences are telling. Livelihoods for millions are affected, food production capabilities are curtailed, and the social well-being of communities is destabilised.
But there is a much bigger problem. Today we deny the plastic-climate connection, the enormity and urgency of the problem, in the same manner we denied climate science in the 1980s.
Admittedly, Kenyans and Africans have done well in the fight against climate change in some areas such as renewable energy in recent years, committing efforts and money for a better, cleaner and beautiful continent. These efforts are commendable.
The production of plastics has been growing at a rate of about 100 million tonnes annually around the world. Today, all plastics in the world weigh twice as much as all animal life combined. This mass of plastics has clogged our landfills and poisoned our oceans and marine life. Now it is accelerating the climate crisis.
Plastics are made to last, usually disintegrating after 400 years. They could last even longer, effectively making them one of the most dangerous polluters on earth.
Long after they have been discarded, plastics continue to release emissions that significantly contribute to the warming of the planet.
As we mark World Environment Day this year, therefore, it is important to acknowledge that we are barely halfway through the journey to defeat this monster.
The 2019 report by the Center for International Environmental Law paints an even grimmer picture, stating that by 2050, the impact of continued production of plastics will equate to the output of about 615 coal-fired power stations. To put this into perspective, plastics will account for 13 per cent of the global carbon budget.
On average, every European uses 114kg of plastics per year. These produce the same amount of emissions as that of a person flying from London to Cairo.
These may sound like merely numbers, but they present a dark reality of our time and of the future of humanity. But to imagine that today only six per cent of plastics are made from recycled materials is an even more dreadful reality.
It is unthinkable that the rest, a staggering 94 per cent, are made from virgin materials, namely those from petrochemicals. As such, the convergence of plastics with the climate crisis begins at the start of their life cycle.
Global heating accelerates the disintegration of plastics for the formation of microplastics and nanoplastics, both responsible for changes in the blood chemistry of seabirds and increase in pathogens. Development of young mammals is also complicated.
Subsequently, to solve the plastic menace is to solve the climate crisis. There is a need, therefore, to step up research in plastic production and pollution, particularly those that are designed for single-use such as those used for water and soft drink bottles.
Beyond the scientific discourse surrounding plastic production, however, the politics of plastics must change as well at the local, national and international levels for us to truly and decisively address these issues.
Rather than the Global North – which consumes the most plastics – exporting their plastic waste to poor countries, for instance, they need to manage their rubbish better by processing and recycling it. Ultimately, we will not only reduce the impact of plastics on the planet and climate but improve the health of our ecosystem as well.
Crucially, more localised food systems that do not require pre-packaging using plastics should be promoted. The plastic scandal does not exist in a vacuum. Plastic pollution presents a human rights issue and a food security issue. As such, we must re-evaluate their socioeconomic and health risks, and the connection to climate change, ecosystem degradation and resource use.
It is time to put an end to our dangerous dependence on plastics and start to re-imagine a future without them.
The writer is a senior climate adaptation and resilience advisor at Power Shift Africa