The Paris Agreement is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) dealing with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance starting in the year 2020.
The Paris Climate Agreement was negotiated by representatives of 197 parties and adopted by consensus on 12 December 2015. The Agreement is a testament to the global commitment for working together to limit total global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius (°C) and pursue efforts to stay below 1.5°C. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) further highlighted the profound risks to humanity and the environment if warming goes above 1.5°C. To prevent these risks, the IPCC cautioned that we must transition rapidly away from the fossil fuel economy and reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050.
Plastic is one of the most ubiquitous materials in the economy and among the most pervasive and persistent pollutants on Earth. It has become an inescapable part of the material world, flowing constantly through the human experience in everything from plastic bottles, bags, food packaging, and clothing to prosthetics, car parts, and construction materials.
In the most general terms, plastics are synthetic organic polymers—giant synthetic molecules comprised of long chains of shorter molecules— derived primarily from fossil fuels.
According to a report from the Guardian, an estimated 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s — that’s equivalent to the weight of more than 800,000 Eiffel Towers. Unfortunately, only 9 percent of it has been recycled. Here are some additional facts on plastic pollution:
- A study conducted by the University of Queensland in Australia, based on data collected since the late 1980s, found that Green sea turtles now ingest twice the plastic they did 25 years ago;
- According to the United Nations, ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 1 million marine birds and 100,000 marine animals each year;
- More than 90 percent of all birds and fish are believed to have plastic particles in their stomach. It’s because plastic breaks up into tiny pieces in the sea, which are then consumed by fish and other sea animals; and
- Research from Plymouth University has found that close to 700 species of marine life are facing extinction due to the increase of plastic pollution.
It is true that plastic contributes to climate change but single-use plastics do it over and over again. Single-use plastics is defined as plastics that are used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. It includes plastic bags, plastic drinking straws, plastic water bottles, plastic packages, plastic utensils; plastic cotton buds, plastic cups, plastic coffee stirrers, etc. Here is a brief description on five selected major single-used plastics:
PLASTIC BAGS: Habitat destruction, fossil fuel emissions, and plastic pollution are some of the ways that plastic bags and climate change cannot be separated. An estimated 12 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture the 30 million plastic bags that Americans use each year. That is equivalent to the amount of oil in the Strategic Oil Reserve. When used for bags, it is a wasteful and unnecessary way to deplete the oil supply and contribute to carbon dioxide (CO2) build-up in the atmosphere.
The build-up of plastic in the oceans is a greater cause of eco-system disruption. An estimated 100,000 marine animals die each year from suffocating on or ingesting bags. Even that number seems small when the impacts of littered bags that breaks up into small pieces and washes into the waterways. These small pieces of plastic are accumulating at an alarming rate in the oceans. Here are some other facts about plastic bags:
- A trillion plastic bags are used around the world each year;
- Over 44 percent of all seabirds have ingested or become entangled in plastic;
- The average time that a plastic bag is used for is… twelve minutes;
- Most plastic bags are non-biodegradable; and
- There might be animal fat on the plastic bag.
PLASTIC DRINKING STRAWS: Most straws today are made from a petroleum-based plastic called polypropylene. This means straws represent yet another product that requires fossil fuel extraction. Plastic drinking straws affects climate change. Making all these straws puts an undue strain on the climate (the production of 1,000 kilograms of polypropylene releases 3,530 kilograms of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas).
Plastic drinking straws are designed to be used once and discarded, their only real purpose is to keep the mouth from touching a glass or ice. It made more sense in the days when contaminated vessels were more of an issue. Now there is a movement to get people and businesses to ditch the straws. It may not seem like a big deal, but it is. In the US alone, people discard 500 million straws every day or more than 180 billion a year. That’s about 1.4 million kilograms of plastic sent to landfills and into the oceans every day. Here are some additional facts about plastic drinking straws:
- Straws are made from natural resources including crude oil, natural gas and coal which cannot be replaced once depleted;
- 20 minutes is the average time a straw is used before being discarded;
- Straws are one of the top 10 items littering our marine environment;
- 90 per cent of rubbish floating in the world’s oceans is plastic, primarily straws, bottles and caps;
- Studies estimate 1 million sea birds, 100,000 mammals and countless fish are killed every year from plastic;
- 6,263,319 straws and stirrers have been collects at beach clean-up events over the past 25 years; and
- Reports indicate there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
PLASTIC WATER BOTTLES: A report by the Guardian found that 1 million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute, and this number is set to increase by another 20 percent by 2021 if nothing is done to control it. The same report said more than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were purchased in 2016 across the world — up from 300 billion a decade ago.
Additionally, less than half of the bottles purchased in 2016 were recycled — with just 7 percent of those collected turned into new bottles, and the rest ending up in landfill sites or the ocean. Here are some additional facts on plastic water bottles:
- One plastic bottle will take more than 450 years to completely break down (that’s 25 generation);
- Reusing 1 glass bottle will prevent the purchase and consumption of more than 240 plastic bottles every year;
- The U.S is the largest consumer of plastic bottled water in the world as annually, Americans consume more 8.6 billion gallons of bottled water each year;
- The average U.S. citizen consumes more than 21 gallons of water every year;
- More than 75 percent of plastic water bottles are never recycled, they’re simply thrown away;
- Plastic water bottles generate more than 121 million tons of waste each year;
- Manufacturing & filling the plastic water bottles, on average wastes 30-40 percent of the water involved in the process; and
- It takes 47 million gallons of oil to create plastic water bottles each year. Every year in the U.S. in excess of 38 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills.
PLASTIC PACKAGING: Food and beverage packaging used by fast food chains, beverage companies and consumer brands manufacturers are one of the most visible forms of waste — it can be seen strewn in the streets or blemishing ocean beaches. Turns out, this is not just bad for the planet — it’s bad for business.
Major brands such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, KFC, MillerCoors and Kraft Foods are wasting about $11.4 billion a year in potential savings by failing to incorporate recycling into their packaging choices, according to a new report (PDF) by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the CSR nonprofit As You Sow.
Throwaway plastic packaging makes up 40 percent of the demand for plastic, fueling a boom in production from 2m tonnes in the 1950s to 380m tonnes in 2015. By the end of 2015, 8.3bn metric tonnes of plastic had been produced – two-thirds of which has been released into the environment and remains there. The researcher said:
- “Packaging is one of the most problematic types of plastic waste, as it is typically designed for single use, ubiquitous in trash, and extremely difficult to recycle. A constant increase in the use of flexible and multilayered packaging has been adding challenges to collection, separation, and recycling.”
Forty per cent of plastic packaging waste is disposed of at sanitary landfills, 14 percent goes to incineration facilities and 14 percent is collected for recycling. Incineration creates the most CO2 emissions among the plastic waste management methods.
PLASTIC UTENSILS: Plastic utensils (Forks, Knives, Spoons, Sporks, etc.) are typically made out of two types of plastics: Polypropylene and Polystyrene. Plastics are made from monomers and are produced from a process called polymerization.
Monomers, single sequence molecules, such as ethylene and propylene are produced from natural gas and oil. Natural gas and oil, both fossil fuels, are hydrocarbons, or a series of molecules composed of carbon and hydrogen that are linked together in a repeating chain. The natural gas and oil are heated to the point where the constituent hydrocarbons are converted into the reactive monomers. The monomers then become polymers (or multiple monomer molecules linked together) and are then cooled into blocks of the respective plastic they are designed to be come, depending on the additives put into the liquefied substance when the monomer conversion process takes place.
Since the 1950s, one billion tons of plastic have been discarded and may persist for hundreds or even thousands of years. The mindset of disposable and single use plastic utensils has contributed to this in great capacity, and it does not show many signs of stopping.
Then again, the supply of this “trash resource” has now become an economy in itself, by generating both jobs to manage the large load along with the energy it creates. Although the plastic utensil might be the ultimate in convenience and affordability, the life cycle around it is quite complex and we may not be able to afford the ecological and social costs if we keep using them, or if you are one of my high school students, not use them.
Here is a reality. If plastic consumption increases at its current rate, according to National Geographic, by 2050 there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills.
While increasing numbers of organizations and countries are banning plastic use and production around the world, the world’s leading plastic manufacturers are planning to increase production by almost a third over the next five years, according to the World Economic Forum. In 1974, global plastic consumption per year was 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) per capita. Today, this has increased to 43 kilograms (about 95 pounds) — and this number is still set to increase.
Every country in the world is contributing to this problem. For instance, Canadians send more than nine million tonnes of trash to landfill every year and an estimated 35 per cent of that waste is generated from packaging for food and consumer goods. And, of course, not all of that waste is properly disposed of – scientists have long been sounding the alarm that plastics and other debris are choking our oceans and waterways. It’s estimated that over 100,000 marine mammals and over 1 million sea birds die by plastic every year. One recent study found plastic inside every single whale, dolphin and seal examined.
The European Union (EU) voted by 560 to 35 in favor of banning 10 single-use plastics including plates, balloon sticks, and food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene and all products made of Oxo-degradable plastic. These are the 10 most found items on EU beaches. Other items, “where no alternative exists” will still have to be reduced by 25 percent in each country by 2025. Examples given include burger boxes and sandwich wrappers.
The EU countries can choose their own methods of reducing the use of other single-use plastics such as takeout containers and cups for beverages. They will also have to collect and recycle at least 90 percent of beverage bottles by 2029.
European Commission Vice-President Franz Timmermans said: “Europe is setting new and ambitious standards, paving the way for the rest of the world.” The Commission had recommended the regulations approved on Wednesday by the bloc’s parliament.
In addition to the single-use plastic ban, member states of the European Parliament will be required by 2029 to collect and recycle at least 90 percent of beverage bottles. Tobacco companies will also play a role, covering the cost of collecting littered cigarette butts, which are the second most littered single-use plastic items, according to Al Jazeera.
Greenpeace Canada says five corporations — Nestle, Tim Hortons, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company and McDonald’s — accounted for 46 per cent of branded plastic trash collected in a recent audit. The audit was part of a global initiative comprising 239 plastic cleanups in 42 countries, with Greenpeace teaming up with various local organizations to assess how large corporations and brands contribute to plastic pollution.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in June 2019 that the government is looking at different options to limit the use of single-use plastics and make plastic producers responsible for the collection and recycling of their products under new regulations. He stated that:
- I am very pleased to announce that as early as 2021 Canada will ban harmful single use plastics from coast to coast to coast. The government will also make plastic producers responsible for the recycling of their products, rather than municipalities; and
- This shift away from municipal responsibilities to corporate responsibilities is one we know is going to allow us to recycle a lot more plastic.
Trudeau also said the timeline will be based around consultations and discussions with scientists around which plastics should be targeted, what alternative options are available for businesses, and how unintended costs to small businesses could be limited.
The plan right now is to study how other jurisdictions like the EU bar single-use plastics and put together a list of single-use plastics that will be covered under the ban over the coming months and year, Trudeau said.
Ontario, a province of Canada with 14.4 million populations, is weighing a ban on single-use plastics as part of a broader strategy to send less waste to landfills. Nearly a tonne of waste per person in Ontario is generated each year, and the rate at which that waste is diverted away from landfills – through recycling and composting, for example – has stalled around 30 per cent for the past 15 years.
It is estimated that almost 10,000 tonnes of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes each year, the discussion paper says. Ontario’s Blue Box recycling program recovers only about 28 per cent of all plastic packaging in the province. Ontario is also mulling a deposit return system for plastic bottles and other containers, as is used in some other provinces.
Finally, according to a report published recently, Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, by Center for International Environmental Law – To date, research on marine plastic pollution has reached three main conclusions:
- Plastic breaks into smaller pieces that can now be found in the most far-flung corners of the globe, including the deepest area of the ocean;
- Attached to these plastic pieces are a mix of toxic chemicals that are harmful to humans and animals, known as persistent organic pollutants; and
- Plastic harms aquatic animals through entanglement and ingestion at all levels of the food chain, and humans in turn ingest plastic through a variety of pathways.
28 September 2019 – Ottawa, Ontario, Canada