Is Plastic Good For Climate Change?

I know, a slightly contentious title, but I’ve spent the last two weeks interviewing, talking to and listening to a wide range of experts throughout the world from Coca Cola to climate scientists, car manufacturers to plastic activists and the good and bad side of plastics have been fought for and lamented against. It all makes for fascinating reading/thought once you’ve recognised the insane spin attached to some of it.

So plastic must be really bad for climate change, it’s made from oil (4% of fossil fuel production goes to plastic, and then about 3% of fossil fuels is used to fuel its production), it chucks out loads of CO2 when produced and likewise at the other end if its incinerated. But here’s the rub, it’s light, durable and saves Co2 emissions at the other end.

How so?

Well consider this, how much plastic is in your car? A lot is the answer. But if there wasn’t so much plastic most of it would have to be replaced with a heavier metal. That extra weight burns more fuel, thus there is an argument that the saving outweighs the production. But there’s more, I got to speak to Coke. I find a Coke produced artefact on every beach from Suffolk to Arctic Norway, so why don’t Coke go back to glass bottles and make the biggest impact on plastic pollution ever? It comes back to weight again, transportation costs in this case; plastic is lighter, more durable, and as the nice fella said, “you can then recycle it, it’s up to people to recycle, not us.”

Trouble is recycling plastic is harder than glass, almost always it just gets turned into a lower grade product, and many countries, especially in the less developed world simply do not have the facility to do it. So right now somewhere between 250 and 500 million tons of Co2 is released into the atmosphere thanks to plastic. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. We do have a role to play in stopping this, especially with bottles. Obviously bottled water is a rip off, so get a reusable one. But what about soft drinks, and other items? We simply have to close the loop, recycling and using non-virgin plastic to make things would reduce plastic’s carbon footprint by between 30-40%, that is significant. At the moment though recycling is so low, so what do we do?

Well the obvious way is simply to offer a deposit return system, it used to work with glass bottles and where it has been trialled it works well for plastic. Surfers Against Sewage are leading the charge on it here in the UK – (sign petition here), it makes for an incentivised recycling programme, because right now the global rate for recycling plastic bottles is in single digits.

And to answer the original question? No plastic is not good for climate change, reducing weight to save on transport costs and fuel is a load of rubbish, better to start again and design something new.


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