• Dr Joanne Delange

The Links Between Plastic Pollution and the Climate Crisis


Plastic pollution should be addressed when world leaders discuss how to prevent climate change according to a new study.


An interdisciplinary team of scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Bangor University have identified fundamental links between climate change and marine plastic pollution and urge that solutions are urgently needed to combat both crises.


Publishing their findings in Science of the Total Environment the scientists have identified three significant ways that plastic pollution and the climate crisis are connected. Firstly, the production and incineration of plastic will pump more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere contributing to global greenhouse gases (GHGs). Secondly, plastic pollution is exacerbated by extreme weather that is associated with climate change, such as floods and typhoons due to the fact that these condition disperse and spread plastic waste further. Lastly, marine species, ecosystems and the natural interconnection of food chains are vulnerable to both the effects of climate change and plastic pollution.


Helen Ford, from Bangor University, who led the research, said: 'Our study shows that changes are already occurring from both plastic pollution and climate change that are affecting marine organisms across marine ecosystems and food webs, from the smallest plankton to the largest whale.'


Plastic Pollution


Plastic is man-made by drilling or fracking fossil fuels, such as crude oil, coal and gas, which are found beneath the Earth's crust. The production of plastics is known to have had negative impacts on the planet in the hundred years since, Bakelite, the first real synthetic plastic was mass-produced.


It's not only that the production of plastic involves burning of fossil fuels that is creating a negative impact on our planet, but also that it takes hundreds of years for plastic to break down – resulting in much of it ending up as rubbish in the natural world, particularly the world's oceans, causing a negative impact on the marine ecosystem.


It is estimated that the Western world recycled only 10% of its plastic waste, with an even lower number for the developing world. As such, between 24-34 million tonnes of plastic rubbish is thought to end up in our seas, oceans and rivers every year, killing marine life and thus effecting the finally balanced food chains.


Policy makers are spending so much time and energy on creating policies to minimise carbon dioxide emissions that the problems encountered by plastics is being ignored. The authors are stressing that governments treat both climate change and plastic pollution issues together.



Marine Biodiversity Loss


The climate crisis and plastic pollution are a significant driver of marine biodiversity loss. Marine animals, and their ecosystems, are taking a double hit from both issues. Coral reefs and other vulnerable habitats are suffering from the sea temperatures rising, from pollution from farms and industry, from the increased acidification of the oceans, from over development and from over-fishing. Individual animals often ingest plastic bags mistaking them for food, entire habitats have become polluted with micro-plastics and sea ice is a known major trap for micro-plastics, which will be released into the ocean as the ice melts due to global warming, potentially entering global food chains.


The compounding impact of how plastic pollution and the climate crisis act together is often overlooked by governments and policy makers.


'Climate change is undoubtedly one of the most critical global threats of our time. Plastic pollution is also having a global impact; from the top of Mount Everest to the deepest parts of our ocean…. Both are having a detrimental effect on ocean biodiversity; with climate change heating ocean temperatures and bleaching coral reefs, to plastic damaging habitats and causing fatalities among marine species' explained Professor Heather Koldewey, senior author on the paper, from ZSL. 'The compounding impact of both crises just exacerbates the problem. It's not a case of debating which issue is most important, it's recognising that the two crises are interconnected and require joint solutions.'


Conclusion


This study conducted by ZSL and Bangor University has revealed that the plastic and climate change crises aggravate one another, creating a dangerous cycle, and highlight the need for both crises to be tackled in unison to save marine life. There is an urgent need to move away from wasteful single-use plastic and a linear economy. The throwaway culture that has developed over recent years needs to end and a circular economy adopted in order to reduce the need for damaging fossil fuels in the production of plastics, and adopting a culture of re-using will reduce the gross amounts of plastic dumped on our planet.


Further research is needed to determine the links between the climate crises and plastic pollution. Investigation into how both issues interact to negatively impact ecosystems is paramount in maintaining and protecting our natural environment.


Governments, policymakers and manufactures all need to make changes, as can each and every individual – because there is no better time than the present to turn the tide on plastic pollution.


References


Ford HV, et al (2022). The fundamental links between climate change and marine plastic pollution. Science of The Total Environment. Volume 806, Part 1, 1 February 2022, 150392. Available at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.150392


Catastrophic consequences for our ocean when climate change and plastic pollution crises combine. Zoological Society London. Available at https://www.zsl.org/conservation/news/catastrophic-consequences-for-our-ocean-when-climate-change-and-plastic-pollution

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