Plastic production accounted for 96 per cent of carbon and particulate matter footprint, with half of this attributed to combustion of coal, according to a new study led by ETH Zurich, a public research university.
This has been the case due to growth in plastic production in coal-based economies. The researchers found that the impact of plastic on climate and health is greater than had been previously envisaged due to the increased use of coal.
Regards the processes involved in burning coal, it produces extremely fine particles that accumulate in the air. Such particulate matter is highly harmful to health and can cause asthma, bronchitis and cardiovascular disease.
Statistically speaking, the global carbon footprint of plastic doubled since 1995, reaching 2billion GtCO2-tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2015 and accounting for 4.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the study.
Over the years, the reliance on coal has meant that fossil fuels combusted for global plastics production released a total of 1.7 GtCO2e in 2015, the study found.
“China, Indonesia and South Africa, were among the major drivers of the increasing carbon footprint from plastics. Since 1995, China’s plastics-related carbon footprint has more than tripled from both a production and a consumption perspective.”ETH Zurich Study
In 2015, 40 per cent of the global plastics-related carbon footprint and more than 60 per cent of the related coal-based emissions were contributed by China. Also, 15 per cent of Indonesia’s totally mined coal was used for plastics production, either domestically or abroad. More than 10 per cent of Indonesia’s total domestic GHG emissions were attributed to plastics production in 2015.
South Africa’s plastics-related carbon footprint has increased 10-fold since 1995 and 95 per cent of it was caused by domestic coal consumption in 2015. The reason for this is that South Africa uses coal not only to supply electricity and heat but also as a feedstock for plastics production.
In regions such as the European Union and the United States, contributed substantially to the increasing global carbon footprint of plastics by their rising demand for plastics produced in lower-income regions, particularly in coal-based economies such as China.
Global Health Footprint of Plastics Rise in Two Decades
In addition to increased plastics exports, emerging economies contributed to the rising global carbon footprint of plastics by their growing plastics demand, due mainly to their growing infrastructures, transportation systems and digitalization
Over the same period (1995-2015), according to the study, the global health footprint of plastics from fine particulate air pollution increased by 70 per cent, causing approximately 2.2 million disability-adjusted life years (DALY) in 2015.
At every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risks to human health, arising from both exposure to plastic particles themselves and associated chemicals.
Nearly 75 per cent of particulate matter-related health impacts were caused in China, India, Indonesia and other Asia, while high-income regions increasingly consumed plastics produced in these regions.
In 2015, 85% of the workforce required for plastics consumed by the European Union and the United States was employed abroad, but 80% of the related value added was generated domestically.
According to the study, high-income regions have outsourced the energy-intensive steps of plastics production to coal-based economies.
It is therefore worthy to note that plastics production induces health impacts, such as through the release of particulate-matter (PM) emissions, but also socioeconomic impacts, such as by employing a workforce and creating value addition.