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Plastic is a dirty word these days, but what is it and why is it so bad?

So what’s wrong with plastic?

Well, plastic is just a form of fossil fuel. The vast majority of plastic is derived from crude oil (though can also be from natural gas or coal), which is a finite natural resource. The oil is processed via heating it in a furnace before it is separated in to lighter components, or fractions. One of these fractions is called naphtha which is the main element of most plastic. The fact is, plastic actually has a big carbon footprint. It takes a lot of energy to extract the naphtha and turn it into plastic and is among the most energy-intensive materials to produce.

CRUDE OIL

Carroll Muffett, head of the Center for International Environmental Law which has gathered global data on how much climate-warming greenhouse gas is produced in making plastic, from cradle to grave, states that “emissions from plastics production and incineration could account to 56 gigatons of carbon between now [2019] and 2050.”

That’s 56 billion tons, or almost 50 times the annual emissions of 189 coal power plants.

CIEL-FIG-1-Annual-Plastic-Emissions-Compared-to-Coal-Plants

Estimates show that every 500ml plastic bottle of water has a total carbon footprint equal to 83 grams. So if you bought just one bottle of water, juice or fizzy drink a day, over the course of a year that would add over 30kg of carbon emissions added to your carbon footprint.

But the problem of plastic is not just the huge amount of carbon, or CO2, that it emits into the atmosphere, but also that it isn’t biodegradable. Plastic won’t just rot, like paper or food, if you throw it away, it will hang around in the environment for hundreds of years.

Of all the plastic that has ever been produced since its invention in the 1950’s (8.3 billion tonnes in case you were wondering, or the weight of roughly a billion elephants) only 9% has been recycled. Sure, 12% has been burned (also a bad idea as this emits high levels of CO2), but the remaining 79% has ended up in landfills and the environment, from people tossing it into hedgerows, oceans, mountain tops and the like.

But is plastic always bad?

The simple answer is no, plastic does have it’s place and uses, so it is not always bad. The main problems with plastic is when it is used to make single-use products, such as crisp packets, water bottles, food containers, fruit and veg packaging (do bananas really need to be in a bag?) etc.  Many products such as these are not recyclable so will end up in landfills site or littering our oceans where it will stay for the next 400 years or so.

Why not have a look at how much plastic you bring home with your weekly shopping. How much of that can you recycle? Shocking isn’t it?

But there are some products that it’s worth making from plastic, such as reusable cups, water bottles and Tupperware as these items will be reused for many many years and prevent the usage of their single-use counterparts.

“At current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C degrees. By 2050, the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons—10-13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.” Plastic & Climate, The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet.

So when you ask, what is wrong with plastic, maybe you should actually be asking yourself, what is right with it.

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