Plastics, downcycling and climate change

Plastics, downcycling and climate change

The fact is that recycling or downcycling can never prevent end-of-life disposal; it can merely delay it until it is rendered completely useless for recycling. After that, in most cases, it winds up in a landfill, where it slowly breaks down into microplastics and emits methane

Shailendra YashwantUpdated: Sunday, February 12, 2023, 11:02 PM IST
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Representative Image | Pixabay

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wore a jacket made from “recycled” plastic bottles in Parliament. The jacket manufactured by Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) under an initiative called ‘Unbottled’ has been made from 20 PET bottles according to the company. It was also announced that IOCL will recycle 100 million PET bottles annually to make fabric, and the jackets will be available at retail outlets of oil marketing companies (OMC) such as IOCL, BPCL and HPCL.

Recycling is a good thing as it reduces waste and minimises pollution; however, it is important to understand that these jackets are not recycled but downcycled. Recycling converts a material into something of roughly the same value as it originally was. Metals, aluminium, and glass are materials that recycle well, as they can be recycled many times while the resulting material will still be of equal quality.

Downcycling is the term used to describe a recycled product that is not as structurally strong as the original product made from virgin materials. When plastic bottles and materials are recycled by mechanical methods, the plastic gets weaker. While downcycling is certainly better than landfilling or burning plastic (either in an incinerator or as fuel in waste to energy plants), it does nothing to reduce plastic pollution. The fact is that recycling or downcycling can never prevent end-of-life disposal; it can merely delay it until it is rendered completely useless for recycling. After that, in most cases, it winds up in a landfill, where it slowly breaks down into microplastics and emits methane.

Theoretically most plastic materials can be downcycled, but it is easier said than done. From contamination of plastic waste (for example, with labels or food remains) to harmful chemical additives found in some plastics (for example, flame retardants) to a lack of economic incentives and profitability, there are many barriers to effective recycling. As a result, much of recycling is merely postponing final disposal in landfills or incinerators, not preventing plastic waste.

Today, the world manufactures around 438 million tons of new plastic every year. With no slowdown in sight, this number is projected to surge to 34 billion tons by 2050. Of all the plastic waste we generate globally, scientists estimate that less than 10 percent is recycled. About 79 percent of plastic waste ends up in landfills or nature and some 12 percent is incinerated.

We are unable to effectively handle our plastic waste now, so picture what our oceans and landscapes will look like in 2050 when plastic waste increases fourfold – assuming current trends continue. The only way to reduce the amount of plastics we landfill or incinerate is to reduce the amount we produce in the first place especially now that it is well recognised that plastics also exacerbates climate change.

This is because more than 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, both natural gas and crude oil—and because plastic results in greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its lifecycle according to Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

The plastics industry is the fastest-growing source of industrial greenhouse gases in the world. The UN Environment Programme estimates that the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production, use and disposal could account for 19 percent of the total global carbon budget by 2040.

As 99% of plastics are created from fossil fuel feedstocks, plastic production is closed linked to the petrochemical industry. Petrochemicals are expected to become the largest driver of global oil demand growth from now through 2030. While the international community is striving to address climate change by moving away from fossil fuels in the energy and transportation sectors, one should not forget that plastics is the last refuge of the fossil fuel industry.

Plastics result in greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of their lifecycle – from the extraction and transport of fossil fuels to energy- and emissions-intensive refining processes to plastic waste management or leakage into the environment.In 2019, plastic production and incineration resulted in greenhouse gas emissions equal to the emissions from 189 five hundred-megawatt coal power plants. If plastic production and use grow as predicted, then by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year – equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

Ultimately, we should strive to reduce the use of plastics as much as possible in our everyday life. Reducing the overall use of plastic and eliminate non-necessary plastics would thus help jointly tackle the climate and plastic pollution crises.

Shailendra Yashwant is an independent environmental photojournalist and climate communications consultant

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