We hear about the devastating impact plastic pollution has on the ocean seemingly every day. From microplastics invading tap water and table salt to stories of phytoplankton choosing to eat plastic over their natural food source – not to mention the countless animals killed from consuming plastics every day – plastic pollution has become synonymous with ocean demise. Unfortunately, today we have some more bad news related to plastic pollution that puts it on par with the damaging impacts of fossil fuels.
A new study carried out by researchers from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) revealed that everyday plastic objects like bottles and containers emit greenhouse gases as they degrade in the environment. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that most common plastics produce methane and ethylene when they are exposed to sunlight, effectively meaning they are adding to the sum total of emissions contributing to the greenhouse effect. It is important to note that methane is considered one of the MOST potent greenhouse gases as it is able to trap a significant amount of heat in the environment.
To come to this conclusion, scientists tested a variety of materials used to produce food storage, textiles, construction materials, and other plastic items, Science Daily reports. The materials included acrylic, polypropylene, polyethylene, polystyrene, and more. Polyethylene, the most produced and discarded synthetic polymer in the world, was found to be the most prolific emitter of both greenhouse gases.
“Plastic represents a source of climate-relevant trace gases that is expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment,” said David Karl, senior author on the study. “This source is not yet budgeted for when assessing global methane and ethylene cycles, and may be significant.”
During tests on low-density polyethylene (LDPE), researchers found that the emission rate of gases from virgin pellets of this plastic increased during the experiment over the course of 212 days. It was also discovered that LDPE waste in the oceans emitted gases when exposed to sunlight, and once the emission of the gases was initiated, it continued even in the dark. The increased emission of greenhouse gases over time was attributed to both to photo-degradation and the development of a fractured surface layer of the plastics, which made the area available for degradation bigger.
“Considering the amounts of plastic washing ashore on our coastlines and the amount of plastic exposed to ambient conditions, our finding provides further evidence that we need to stop plastic production at the source, especially single-use plastic,” said lead author Sarah-Jeanne Royer.
Since the 1950s, we have produced approximately 9 billion tons of plastic. During that time, the material has become a staple due to its practicality, but we are just now starting to discover the real scope of impact plastics have on the environment, wildlife, and our own health. Greenhouse gases directly influence climate change, they affect temperatures, sea levels, and weather patterns. There have been countless studies done to illustrate the burden that rising global temperatures put on the oceans, especially in the case of coral bleaching, but to learn that it is not only our activities on land but also the pollution we are dumping into the oceans that are accelerating emissions levels is shocking to say the least.
This is yet another major wake-up call that we need to heed with the utmost sincerity. Plastic has worked its way into so many facets of our lives, but all it takes is a little bit of effort to cut down on some of the most pervasive forms of plastic pollution. To learn more about a plastic-free lifestyle and get real tips from people who have done it, check out the resources below:
- 10 Life Hacks to Help You Cut Plastic Out of the Picture
- Two Years of Living Plastic Free: How I Did it and What I’ve Learned
- Why I Make My Own Toothpaste – and How I do it
- Simple Guide to Waste-Free Grocery Shopping
- 10 Ways to Adopt a Zero Waste Lifestyle
To find out how you can help make a change by switching from single-use plastics to reusable cups, bottles, bags, and more, check out One Green Planet’s #CrushPlastic campaign!
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