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September 28, 2023

Plastics consumption feeding climate crisis

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Plastic, plastic and yet more plastic. Photo Hans Braxmeier – Pixabay.

Groundbreaking research into the climate costs of Australia’s plastic addiction shows that the plastic consumed across the nation in just one year produces more greenhouse gas emissions than one third of our car fleet.

The report, produced by environmental consultants Blue Environment for the Australian Marine Conservation Society and WWF-Australia, shows that in 2020 Australia’s emissions from plastics created more than 16 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases – equivalent to the emissions produced by 5.7 million cars on Australia’s roads annually. 

Accelerating plastic consumption

The report says that if we continue on our current path of accelerating plastic consumption, the emissions from Australia’s plastics will more than double to 42.5 million tonnes annually by 2050 – the year Australia has legislated to reach net-zero emissions. The Center for International Environmental Law estimates plastics could account for up to 15 per cent of the world’s carbon budget by 2050 if decisive action is not taken. 

The report, Carbon emissions assessment of Australian plastics consumption, is the first major study to model the emissions associated with the production and disposal of plastics, including recycling, and what Australia can do to cut those emissions. The report shows that plastics produce significant emissions, and virgin plastics made from fossil fuels were the most emissions intensive to produce, creating more than double the emissions of any other plastic.

Cutting plastic consumption by 30 per cent

In Australia, we generate more single-use plastic waste per person than any other country except Singapore. The good news is that we can cut plastic consumption by 30 per cent  by 2040 through such approaches as banning plastic or increasing the use of reusables, before needing to substitute plastics with other materials.

AMCS Plastics Campaign Manager Shane Cucow said the findings are shockingly clear. ‘We already knew runaway plastic use is creating mountains of waste and pollution, killing millions of animals every year through entanglement or ingestion. Now we have clear evidence it is also fuelling global warming, which is endangering our entire marine ecosystem.

Stop using fossil fuels to make it

‘We must use less plastic, stop using fossil fuels to make it, and stop using fossil fuels as an energy source for plastic production and recycling. If we don’t, the emissions from plastic will only increase and exacerbate climate change.’

WWF-Australia No Plastics in Nature Policy Manager Kate Noble said we can’t rely on recycling solely to get us out of this mess.  ‘We need to drastically cut our plastic use and stop using virgin plastic made from fossil fuels. 

‘Even if we recycle 100 per cent of the plastic we use, we’ll still see emissions double to more than 34 million tonnes annually by 2050.

‘The good news is that we can reduce plastic waste and cut down the emissions from plastic at the same time. Reducing plastic consumption, combined with better design, using it longer, and managing it more responsibly, is the only way to bring our plastic addiction under control, and reduce the climate impacts of plastics at the same time.

Cutting plastics emissions

The report modelled various scenarios including reducing plastics use, decoupling plastic production from fossil fuels, decarbonising energy systems globally, and significantly increasing recycling rates.

Simply capping plastic production at current levels results in nearly a 40 per cent  fall in carbon emissions by 2050 relative to business as usual. Scenarios that solely rely on increasing recycling rates perform only marginally better than business as usual.

Scenarios using renewable energy perform moderately well, and this is a key contributor to the combined scenarios that achieve high reductions in carbon emissions relative to BAU. Overall, the study findings strongly indicate that multiple complementary system level changes are required to significantly reduce the carbon emissions relating to plastics use.

Under a combined scenario, Australia could reduce the total emissions from its plastic use by up to 70 per cent  by 2050, with the greatest impact achieved by cutting plastics consumption by just 10 per cent. We would need to:

  • use plastics more efficiently and cut total consumption by at least 10 per cent,
  • rapidly increase plastic recovery and recycling to 100 per cent, 
  • fully power plastics production and recycling with 100 per cent renewable energy, and 
  • move away from virgin fossil-fuel based plastic entirely. 

While these are ambitious goals that Australia is not currently equipped to meet, the report highlights the need for strong action on plastic consumption and waste management now, to avoid the growing waste, pollution and climate costs caused by skyrocketing plastic consumption.

Further report findings

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production are higher than previously thought, due to substantive new research that indicates that methane from gas extraction and processing is at least 25-40 per cent higher than estimates used by governments globally, which has been averaged to 32.5 per cent  for this report. This is likely to be an underestimate, with recent figures from the International Energy Agency putting the discrepancy at 70 per cent  higher than former estimates.
  • Manufacturing virgin fossil-fuel based plastics produces on average 3,490kg CO2e per tonne, more than double the emissions of producing new plastics through mechanical recycling (1,610kg CO2e/t) – 2.2 times the global warming potential (GWP) over GWP 20 years.
  • Fossil-fuel based plastics produce nearly three times the emissions to manufacture than plant-based plastics (1,280kg CO2e/t –2.7 times over GWP 20-year basis)
  • Incineration and burning plastics to produce energy are the most emissions intensive disposable methods for plastics.
  • Chemical recycling of plastics – where plastic waste is chemically treated to produce oil that can be used as fuel or remanufactured into plastic – is more emissions intensive than mechanical recycling, producing 67 per cent  more emissions than mechanical recycling.
  • Note: The emissions reduction scenarios modelled only refer to plastic emissions and do not consider the emissions of substituted products or other environmental harms caused by plastics. They are indicative projections only and further work is needed to identify technical pathways for reducing plastics consumption and increasing recovery.

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  1. Surely, sending plastics to general waste garbage tips must immediately cease and a stockpile of plastic waste be collected by government locally until the stockpile is either too large to handle or ‘us’ as rate payers create the infrastructure to amalgamate into: Private; Public; Partnership [PPP] creating a plastic recycle waste plant into moulded/granular for the intent of; road surface, levee barriers for flood mitigation, furniture, bollards, and the list goes on.
    If necessary, and not the best choice, either state or federal government have in place the locality for plastic recycle waste plant with easy accessibility to rail and road and to either create the plant out of tax revenue or enter into an agreement for PPP arrangement.
    Since the recycling plant was destroyed by fire at least a year ago, we, our family acknowledge that we are harming our present/future population in doing nothing and accepting the fate of plastic landfill and that we need to find sturdier containers when we shop and continually re-use these containers to reduce our global footprint.
    Please, any government of persuasion immediately cease plastic landfill as if nothing is done, the imprint upon generations to come will enhance the disposal of plastic waste as ‘the norm’.

  2. In the 1960’s as a kid I intuitively disliked and distrusted plastic and have tried to avoid it all my life. Since then it has been proven to contain and leach into our food and the environment 1000’s of dangerous chemicals through packaging, clothing and furniture to name a few sources. It has been found everywhere on the planet irrespective of how remote the location and is in the water and food we drink as micro plastics. Despite this people continue to buy items with plastic content without a thought or care and people talk of a circular materials system but the only real circular system we have is the monetary one where more money is created and sought after in order to create even more wealth and then spent on unnecessary consumption of items we don’t really need. I regular see people buying a plastic shopping bag to carry just a few items when they have two good arms and online shopping is like kids in a sweet shop with many unnecessary items bought. A lot of our consumption is likely not a must have but a want and likely made of plastic and probably of poor durability and destined for landfill sooner rather than later.

    The simple fact is that we are consuming products made from the planets limited resources at a rate unprecedented in history and creating waste, pollution and environmental damage on a scale that is hard to imagine and few people read scientific reports to even know the true picture, and it seems the vast majority of people never think about the environmental damage their purchase will have been part responsible for when purchasing an item or in selecting what they purchase.

    Every manmade item we consume from source through processing and manufacture and transport onto retail sale, and finally to waste disposal and even into a recycling stream, has an environmental cost.

    Look around you in your home, work, your town or city, everything you see that is manmade and especially manufactured in the last 50 years, will have contributed to the current planet heating, pollution and loss of environment and species.

    We need to consume a fraction of what we do in the wealthiest countries of the world and ask ourselves do we really need this, is it made of environmentally damaging materials, will it be durable and what was the damage cost in getting that item transported half way around the world. We need to get away from the disposable mindset where nothing matters and we can throw it away when we have finished with it and buy another one cheaply in the future. We need to consume way less because consuming electric cars when there is a perfectly good fossil fuel car in the garage is an environmental solution mirage, but buying that electric car when the old one is at the end of life is a different thing but both are consumption and both environmentally damaging but just in different ways. Electrification will rape and damage the planet just as the fossil fuel era before it, gross consumption and too many people are the primary problems and the green fixes will not solve anything but just slow the big problems down by a decade or two.

  3. The Plastic, it is killing the planet.
    Even after years of the 10cents refund on plastic bottles, plastic bottles are still left lying around, find their way into creeks, rivers and ocean.
    The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an ongoing advertisement for the ‘wonder’ of plastic.

    It is being left to consumers and the environment to deal with the plastic.
    Collapse of the feel good REDcycle scheme shows that manufacturers need to be tasked with taking back their plastic packaging, then we might get get some genuine action dealing with the plastic.


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