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The Effect of Single-Use Plastic on Climate Change

It’s More Important Than Ever to Reuse

Up until just a few years ago, country leaders and climate experts were still in a debate over whether human-caused climate change was real. However, at this point, data has been collected and the evidence is laid out before our very eyes. Climate change is no longer a debate – it’s been scientifically proven.


report from NASA shows us how even though the environment has always been in a state of constant change, current rates don’t reflect natural dynamism. Since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric CO2 has increased exponentially. Plus, carbon dioxide that comes from burning resources is different from the carbon put off by plants and animals. It’s clearly the work of humans that has accelerated global warming.


The facts on climate change and global warming

Years ago, scientists predicted we’d see certain changes like melting glaciers and severe weather patterns. Well, they’re happening now – and they’re happening faster than we thought they would.


These days, researchers have many tools to collect data about climate and weather patterns. Tree rings, ice core samples, cave deposits, and sediments at the bottom of the ocean collectively tell a story of how the climate behaved in the past. When we compare this to current data, they begin to paint a clear picture of the state of our world. 


We know that the last five years have been the warmest on record. We can see the impact of climate change in our local communities through severe weather events, eroding shorelines, and uncharacteristically hot weather.

hottest years on record

Our planet is suffering tell-tale symptoms of global warming: glacial retreat, sea level rise, warming ocean, shrinking ice sheets, and more.


Currently, we consume more natural resources than the planet can regenerate. In fact, we’re living as though we had 1.7 Earths, an ecological overshoot that won’t take long to degrade and collapse ecosystems.


How plastics contribute to global warming

Plastics are born out of fossil fuels and contribute to greenhouse gases at every stage of their lifecycle. The process of making plastic is a carbon-intensive activity. It requires the extraction of oil, gas, or coal – the building blocks of plastic.


The Center for International & Environmental Law published that an estimated 12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent are emitted each year while extracting and transporting natural gas to create plastics in the United States. If we continue at our current rate, plastics will account for 20% of oil production by 2050.


Additionally, the process of refining and manufacturing plastic creates another significant round of emissions. Finally, the waste management it takes to deal with used plastic contributes further to environmental issues. Incineration, landfilling, and even recycling all place a burden on community health and the natural environment.


Only about two percent of plastics are recycled into a product with an equivalent function. Another eight percent is turned into something of less value, and everything else is landfilled, incinerated, or leaked into the environment.

current cycle of plastic pollution

Lastly, plastics release greenhouse gases as they break down, sending methane and ethylene into the atmosphere.

The global pandemic increased single-use plastics

Before COVID-19 took the world by storm, environmentalists were starting to see some results from their efforts to minimize waste and curb greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, the plastic industry saw a huge boom with the onslaught of sanitation concerns brought on by the health pandemic.

Many plastic bag bans rolled back. Single-use masks, gloves, and takeout boxes exploded. Plus a lot of businesses had to temporarily ban eco-friendly options like reusable grocery bags, glass bottle returns, and travel mugs. There’s been a huge uptick in the production of single-use plastic as well as medical waste and landfilled plastic as a result.

Worse yet, big polluters became more bold than ever as policies were rolled back. Aggressive lobbying efforts from oil and gas companies resulted in billions of dollars in public funds for the industry.

Why it’s more important to reuse than to recycle

Of the three R’s of waste reduction, it’s important to stress reusing over recycling. This is especially important when we’re talking about reusing plastic, most of which doesn’t get recycled. Even what can be recycled can only be re-formed once or twice. The manufacturing of virgin plastic is costly, on a financial level as well as an environmental level.

Reusing saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, limits pollution, and conserves natural resources like timber, petroleum, and fibers. And the effects can be significant – after the Greater London Authority introduced reusing in their sustainability plan several years ago, 12,000 metric tons of goods were reused in 2013.

How can we reduce the tide of plastic waste?

So what’s to be done? While this information can feel overwhelming and devastating, there are actions we can take to make a difference and change our future. 

On a societal level, a psychological and behavioral shift is necessary to differentiate between when we need single-use and when we don’t. There’s also plenty of room for innovation to eliminate plastic at an early stage in the way we design products (like creating glass straws to replace plastic ones). We can also develop new technologies to better sort plastic, as well as to create new ways to process plastics that currently can’t be recycled.


On a consumer level, we have the ability to make a difference as individuals. Here’s some actions you can take today in order to impact our tomorrow:

  • Give time or money to organizations working for climate justice.


  • Let your city leaders know you care about sustainability and want your city to enact environmental policies. You can go to your city’s website to find out about its environmental policies as well as how to contact local officials. 


  • Support businesses that are making a difference. Companies that are Certified B Corp, that donate to environmental charities, and that design and package products with zero waste initiatives have a positive impact on our world.


  • Speak up about these issues on whatever platform you have. Education and spreading awareness is the key to making a difference.


  • Find and support local projects to #movethedate. The Move The Date movement is put on by the Global Footprint Network to help move the date of Earth Overshoot Day. An interactive map on their website can help you locate environmental groups in your area who are working to make a difference.


  • Check to see if your money is invested in fossil fuels. Use this tool to find out if your mutual funds and ETFs have a negative impact on climate change, as well as to discover fossil-free investments.



  • Influence congress. Congress is key to creating environmental regulations and laws. Learn the best way to communicate to members of Congress, send them effective messages, show up in person or use social media. 


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