Last week, the scientific journal PLOS ONE published a study by researchers from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology which revealed that several greenhouse gases are emitted as plastics degrade in the environment. That’s right: Plastic waste, which flows into oceans at a rate of 18 billion pounds a year, is not only threatening wildlife, polluting water, and changing the chemistry of life – it is also a previously unaccounted-for source of greenhouse gas pollution contributing to climate change and global warming.
The scientists discovered the production of greenhouse gases methane and ethylene when a variety of commonly used plastics were exposed to sunlight. Among the tested products were polystyrene, or styrofoam, which will be banned in Maui County effective Dec. 31 of this year. Polyethylene, the most produced and discarded plastic in the world used for plastic bottles, bags, and wrap, was found to be the greatest emitter of both greenhouse gases.
The threat of climate change is real on Maui, where debates over sea level rise, sea wall construction, coastal erosion and development, emergency preparedness, and ecosystem management occur regularly, and immediately affect large populations of our island community. This study raises the possibility that our planning for the mitigation of climate change may not be enough to cover a previously unconsidered source of greenhouse gas emission.
“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, a senior author of the study in a statement. “This source is not yet budgeted for when assessing global methane and ethylene cycles, and may be significant.”
Sarah-Jeanne Royer, a lead author of the article, added, “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.” Royer is now working to estimate the amount of plastic exposed to the environment in order to calculate and constrain the overall greenhouse gas emissions from plastics.
So, while we bide our time until climate change-caused coastal retreat and perpetual hurricane seasons, consider what the Plastics BAN (Better Alternatives Now) List suggests: Recycle and replace as much plastic as you can with reusable bottles, containers, and bags, because plastic production is estimated to increase four-fold by 2050. And with that bronzer host-organism in the White House reviewing asbestos use and rolling back vehicle gas emission standards, the power of our individual consumer choices and advocacy shouldn’t be underestimated.
Photo courtesy Anders Lyon
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