February 23, 2023
As the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) community prepared to participate in the ELCA Young Adult Ministries’ #NoPlacticsforLent initiative this Lent (or our slightly less ambitious version “#FewerPlasticsForLent”), we wanted to take a deeper look at the impacts of our plastic usage. While it’s well known that plastics are bad for the environment – we’ve all seen devastating photos of plastic “islands” floating in the Pacific – the connection between climate justice and plastic is less obvious.
Is our plastic consumption truly harming our neighbor or is “plastic-free” a trend fueled by sustainability influencers to sell us products on Instagram?
Well, plastic-free is definitely trending on social media, but it turns out that our society’s plastic addiction is having devastating impacts on people around the world and is a major contributor to the climate crisis.
Six things to know about plastic and climate change:
1. The lifecycle of plastics – from extraction to production to incineration – produced more than 850 metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2019. This is equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 189 coal-fired power plants.[i]
2. Almost all plastic begins as a fossil fuel, primarily crude oil and methane. According to the World Economic Forum about 6% of annual oil consumption is associated with plastics. If our plastic-addiction persists, plastics will account for 20% of global oil consumption by 2025. As we strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with electric vehicles and clean energy, our plastic consumption could undo many of the gains we make.[ii]
3. The plastic industry is exploding with expectations to double production over the next two decades. By 2050, the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons – 10-13% of the entire remaining global carbon budget”. [iii]
4. Only 5% of the plastic sent to recycling facilities in the U.S. is actually recycled[iv]. And half of the plastic that is recycled is recycled overseas where recycling plants are less regulated and pose serious danger to workers and the surrounding community.
5. In 2019, the S. exported the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of plastic waste to some of the world’s poorest countries including Bangladesh, Laos, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Most of this plastic is disposed of in open-air landfills where workers are paid just dollars per day to comb through the waste looking for a few recyclable products.[v]
6. One dangerous idea to handle plastic waste that is quickly gaining traction in the U.S. is “waste-to-energy technology” (converting plastics into fuel which is then burned). This technology is often touted as environmentally-friendly, but waste incineration releases particulate matter, lead, and mercury into the air which are directly related to lung disease, heart disease, neurological disorders, and birth defects. 80% of these waste incinerators in the U.S. are located in communities of color who bear the brunt of these health impacts.[vi]
These connections between climate change and our global plastic addiction are just the tip of the iceberg. Visit the #NoPlasticsForLent resource page to discover how you can be part of the solution.
[i] Center for International Climate Law: “Plastic and Climate Change” 2019. https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Plastic-and-Climate-Executive-Summary-2019.pdf
[ii] World Economic Forum: “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics.” January 2016.
[iii] Center for International Climate Law: “Plastic and Climate Change” 2019. https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Plastic-and-Climate-Executive-Summary-2019.pdf
[iv] GreenPeace: “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again.” 2022 https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/GPUS_FinalReport_2022.pdf
[v] The Guardian: “Where does your plastic go?”. 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/17/recycled-plastic-america-global-crisis
[vi] NRDC: “Burned: Why Waste Incineration is Harmful.” July 2021 https://www.nrdc.org/experts/daniel-rosenberg/burned-why-waste-incineration-harmful