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The Use of Plastics, and How it Contributes to Climate Change

The use of plastic began in 1907 when a lawyer from Boston made single-use paper cups after the scientists found out that diseases such as cholera and diphtheria were spreading because people were sharing cups at public water fountains. He and his brother-in-law moved to New York in 1910 and produced the Health Cup, which eventually became Dixie Cup. The production of plastic increased by 300% during World War II and began to be used for more purposes.

Today, most of the items that we use are packaged in plastic such as skincare, food, cleaning supplies, etc. “Plastics have become essential components of products and packaging because they’re durable, lightweight, and cheap. But though they offer numerous benefits, plastics originate as fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases from cradle to grave, according to a May 2019 report called “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet,” released by the Center for International Environmental Law, a nonprofit environmental law organization…” (Bauman). It is clear that we have an addiction to plastic, and although there are substitutes out there that can be used such as biodegradable materials, plastic still remains as the first option.

A lot of people don’t seem to understand how plastic is made. Oil, gas, and coal are what make up plastic. Natural gas and oil are extracted from the earth through fracking. Fracking is the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks, and boreholes to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas, which are then transported to other facilities via pipelines, trains, and trucks. The process of fracking isn’t good since it can lead to oil spills, as well as earthquakes due to the high pressure used. The extraction and transportation of these fossil fuels is a carbon-intense activity. Cars emit carbon dioxide as part of their emissions, so cars are also a huge part of the global warming problem. The process of coal or oil burning combines carbon with oxygen in the air to make carbon dioxide. There is no doubt that the Earth needs carbon dioxide, because without it the Earth would be very cold, but the excess amount of carbon dioxide is what warms up to Earth at an accelerated rate, and this is what leads to climate change.

“Today, about 4-8% of annual global oil consumption is associated with plastics, according to the World Economic Forum. If this reliance on plastics persists, plastics will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050…” (Bauman). It’s clear that we produce a ton of plastic, yet only a small percentage of the plastic that is produced becomes recycled. One fact that very much surprised me is that “…of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled. The vast majority—79 percent—is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter. Meaning: at some point, much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink…” (Parker). It is such a terrible fate for all of the ecosystems in this world. It takes 400 years for plastic to degrade, so every time we produce more plastic we are add on to those 400 years.

Recently, efforts have been made to lessen the use of plastic such as banning plastic bags. However, lots of supermarkets are still using plastic bags since they have to get rid of them all. It doesn’t seem like it is that serious, because if it was, they would ban all plastics and try to introduce biodegradable materials. It’s very unfortunate how we see what is happening to this earth, and yet we continue down this path towards ruin.

Abdulraheem, Mohamed. “Five Innovation that Could End Plastic Waste.” Green Biz, 15 March, 2018, www.greenbiz.com/article/5-innovations-could-end-plastic-waste

Bauman, Brooke. “Why Plastics Can Be Garbage for the Climate.” Yale Climate Connections, 4 Apr. 2020, www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/08/how-plastics-contribute-to-climate-change/.

Parker, Laura. “Here’s How Much Plastic Trash Is Littering the Earth.” National Geographic, 20 Dec. 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/#close.

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