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How Our Plastic and Carbon Footprints Are Intertwined

We know that plastic is filling up our landfills and polluting our waterways, but have you ever considered how plastic plays a role in air pollution and climate change? Until recently, many of us were not aware of the huge link between the plastic and energy sectors, but a new report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) shined a light on this critical connection and is now starting to get a great deal of attention. This is so important because once we understand how much our plastic and carbon footprints are linked, we can make decisions to change the future.


First of all, we have to understand where plastics come from. Most plastics produced today are derived from fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and crude oil. So, the plastic cup you are drinking from comes from the same place as the gasoline in your car. Those same coal mines polluting our air and the oil rigs polluting our water are also the source of the 448 million tons of new plastic put out into the world every single year. 


Interestingly, the same companies are producing both of these products that are harming our environment. In fact, as we shift to more renewable energy like wind and solar and electric vehicles become more popular, the big-name gasoline manufacturers have turned to producing more and more plastic as their new business model. 


So, how are plastics impacting climate?

Researchers estimate that the production and incineration of plastics will add 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in 2019. This is equivalent to the emissions from 189 new coal power plants. By 2030, air emissions from the plastic industry will reach 1.34 gigatons per year (equivalent to more than 295 coal power plants). 


But the energy-intensive process of extracting fossil fuels to produce plastic materials isn’t the only part of the problem. Billions of pounds of single-use plastics (e.g., straws, bags, take-out containers) are now piling up around the world. Unfortunately, less than 10 percent of all plastic waste in the United States is actually recycled. That number continues to drop as countries that we send our waste to are no longer accepting plastic for recycling. 


When recycling fails, communities then turn to incineration to get rid of the plastic waste, leading to more harmful air pollution. In fact, burning plastic has a bigger carbon footprint per kilowatt-hour (kWh) than burning coal. Additionally, the plastic that sits around in landfills and in other places emits greenhouse gases, such as methane and ethylene, as it degrades.  


What Can You Do?

You can see that this growing problem needs to be stopped in its tracks. As consumers, we have the power to make everyday choices involving both plastic and sources of energy to influence the level of production being done by these companies. If the demand decreases because of the changes we make in our lifestyle, then they will have to reduce production. Shifting to a green economy means both choosing renewable energy instead of fossil fuels and moving away from single-use plastics. 


Here are some steps you can take today to make a difference:

Measure: Spend some time figuring out your plastic and carbon footprints. A carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases your lifestyle emits into the atmosphere both directly and indirectly. 

Carbon Footprint Calculator

Your plastic footprint is the amount of plastic you use and discard. This includes everything from plastic bottles and bags to electronics to the microbeads in your nylon clothes.

Plastic Footprint Calculator 

Refuse: Say no to single-use plastics as much as possible, especially while you are at the grocery store and out to eat. 

nurse with medical plastic waste turned into art mural

image via the Toronto Star

Reduce: Cut back on the amount of plastic that you use at home by choosing alternative products and packaging, such as Plaine Products.  

Reuse: This is your time to get creative! Turn plastic into artwork or repurpose it into storage containers, vases, or other décor.  

Recycle: As a last resort, be sure to recycle your plastic. If you are not sure that what you put in the recycling bin is actually getting to the recycling facility, be an advocate in your local community. Ask questions and demand transparency.



This is the latest in a series exploring the health impacts of plastics in our daily lives. Be sure to read the previous blog posts in the series, Why We Need to Understand the History of Plastic Before We Can Tackle The Problem and How Plastic Packaging Can Impact Our Health.


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