A groundbreaking study shows the British public is right to be worried about plastic waste

Plastic waste on a beach
James Aitchison

The British public is finally getting serious about banishing plastic waste, according to responses to a government consultation published on 18 August. The responses revealed that a significant majority of the British public backs tougher measures to reduce plastic waste.

The news is timely as a recent study has revealed that plastic waste could be a contributor to global climate change and poor air quality.

Global warning

Researchers at the University of Hawaii made the groundbreaking discovery by exposing popular consumer plastics to solar and ultraviolet radiation. The researchers tested a number of commonly used plastics such as polycarbonate, acrylic, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, and polystyrene.

The majority of plastics they tested emitted traces of ethylene and methane when exposed to solar radiation. Methane is a greenhouse gas that warms the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in rising temperatures. Ethylene is also a powerful greenhouse gas. As The UN explains:

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane traps heat and warms the planet 86 times more than carbon dioxide over a 20-year horizon. Other sources indicate that methane, although far less prevalent, is a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The worst offenders

The study revealed that of all the products tested, plastic shopping bags produced the largest amounts of ethylene and methane. This revelation is particularly concerning because it’s estimated the global population uses between 500bn and 1tn plastic bags per year. We recycle only a tiny fraction of those bags, as little as one in 200.

Fortunately, some countries are making efforts to address the amount of plastic bag waste. Measures introduced to limit plastic bag usage in the UK has decreased the number of bags on the seabed. The UK government is also reportedly planning to announce an increase in the cost of single-use shopping bags from 5p to 10p.

This is a welcome move, but we need to do more to curb our plastic bag addiction.

Unknown consequences

The discovery of greenhouse gas emissions from plastics is a crucial development in our understanding of the threat plastics pose to the survival of the planet. The study raises important questions; specifically, how much are these plastics likely to contribute to climate change? According to the authors of the study, there is currently no way of knowing how much these plastics contribute to the number of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere:

Our results show that plastics represent a heretofore unrecognized source of climate-relevant trace gases that are expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment.

The authors explain that the total methane contribution is likely to be “insignificant”. But it is possible that plastics are responsible for a large amount of ethylene production.

The people have spoken

While the results of this study are cause for concern, there are reasons to be optimistic. The government’s consultation on plastic waste received a record 162,000 responses. And respondents overwhelmingly favoured tougher measures to tackle plastic waste. This indicates that people see the danger these plastics pose to our planet and our survival.

The government’s plan to implement higher taxes on single-use plastics might have some effect but, if we are serious about addressing this problem, we will need to go much further than the government is proposing.

Get Involved!

– Join The Canary and support the work we do.

– Support groups like GreenpeacePlastic OceansPlastic Pollution Coalition, and WWF.

Featured image via Bo Eide/Flickr

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