Plastic Pollution + Climate Change = Ocean Overload

Ocean Pollution – Floating Bags and human plastic waste in the open ocean. 3D illustration.

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Climate change and marine plastic pollution are fundamentally linked, and new research by the Zoological Society London and Bangor University examines their connection. The paper identifies three key ways these two issues are intertwined:

 

  1. Greenhouse gas emissions caused by plastic’s life cycle (from production to disposal) perpetuates climate change
  2. More frequent and extreme weather events disperses and worsens plastic pollution
  3. Marine species and ecosystems are harmfully impacted

 

The paper emphasizes that while the issues are linked, so are their solutions. Those actions include moving to a more circular, less consumption-driven economy and protecting marine areas like mangrove forests, which can bury and trap plastics as well as sequester carbon. 

 

Why This Matters: The oceans absorb the brunt of both climate change and plastic pollution, but they aren’t always studied in tandem. The two problems don’t exist in isolation, and their root cause is the same: overconsumption of finite resources. Acknowledging their intersectionality makes for better policies and actions going forward, since this kind of research is a better representation of reality on the ground. 

 

As Professor Heather Koldewey, Senior Technical Specialist at ZSL and the senior author on the paper put it: “It’s not a case of debating which issue is most important, it’s recognizing that the two crises are interconnected and require joint solutions.”

 

The Climate Impact of Plastic Production

As the researchers point out, plastic pollution isn’t only harmful at the end of its life as marine debris. Its detrimental impacts begin at production. Plastic is sourced from fossil fuels — it’s essentially an oil product. Last year, it accounted for about 48% of global oil consumption, but that’s projected to rise as high as 20% by 2050 if changes aren’t made. Its production alone is expected to emit more than 56 billion gigatons of carbon dioxide in emissions by midcentury, or 10–13% of the remaining carbon budget.

You don’t have to look far into the future to see its emissions impact: In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic created emissions equal to 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.

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