Plastic Waste Contributes to Global Warming

November 4, 2016

Shortly after the Paris Agreement in December 2015, the agreement which called for zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to be reached during the second half of the 21st century; France leads the world in a proactive move towards eliminating the use of disposable plastic utensils, a key step in cutting emissions and reducing pollution. Will the rest of the world follow?



Come 2020, birthday parties and outdoor dining like picnics and barbeques will not be the same in France. The French will be the first to say good bye to plastic plates, cups and utensils. The law was enacted shortly after the landmark conference at the Paris talks, where world leaders finally came together to take immediate action on global warming. It’s no coincidence that France, will be one of the first countries to take proactive action that will require changing consumer lifestyles, through enforceable laws that will reduce damage to the environment.


What is quintessential about this law is the fact that, plastic waste is in fact an equally pressing problem that needs a worldwide effort to address. Experts have repeatedly highlighted the fact that plastic is non-biodegradable and gets into the ocean’s ecosystems destabilizing the food chain; For example, when fish consume plastic, the chemicals in the plastic gets into their blood stream, which is transferred into our bodies when we consume them.


Waste Disposal vs. Global Warming


There is no competition here obviously, both are equally relevant yet; based on Sri Lanka’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) , a commitment most countries have made to begin a move towards cutting emissions,  Sri Lanka expects to reduce 20% GHG emission in energy sector by 2030.


Though there are no plans for cutting emission through effective waste management or clear cut commitments to reduce plastic pollution in Sri Lanka. In the INDC available online, the 9th issue highlighted is a commitment to “greening the supply chain through introducing Life Cycle Management and Industrial symbiosis to managing zero waste”. This is important because about 6% of the world-wide oil consumption is used for the production of plastic. The production process of plastic increases the global emission of CO2. Last year, a controversial report declared Sri Lanka’s oceans the 5th most polluted due to irresponsible disposal of plastic. Many disputed the report, as the argument is there is no way a population of just 21 million people can be tagging so closely behind China, Indonesia and Philippines in plastic waste production. The good news is the same report predicts that plastic waste production will be reduced significantly in Sri Lanka come 2025. How we will get there, is only possible if there are dramatic shifts in lifestyle choices. From shopping bag choices, to bottled water and then like France, plastic utensils.


Are paper bags a better option?


Short answer, NO! Paper bags have the highest global warming impact per bag compared to other types of bags. According to the US EPA, 70% more global warming gasses are emitted making a paper bag than a plastic bag, and 50 times more water pollution. They also use 4 times more raw materials, and consume 3.5 times more energy.  For Sri Lanka, our best first step would be to use reusable shopping bags and stop the use of polythene in our lunch packets.  Easier said than done!


Do Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) work?


In anticipation of the Paris Agreement, countries publicly outlined what post-2020 climate actions they intend to take. This is known as their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The climate actions communicated in these INDCs largely determine whether the world achieves the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement: “to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C, to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C, and to achieve net zero emissions in the second half of this century.” (UNFCC 2015)

Sri Lanka ratified the Paris Agreement on September 21st 2016. This looming commitment to combat Climate Change cannot ignore the practical realities and life style changes that consumers would need to make. One of which is a significant decline in the use of non-biodegradable plastic commodities. There must be a way to reduce the energy consumed and waste produced by the plastic processing industry, as well as the pollution caused by plastic litter. There must be a way!


Waste-to-energy technology!


Pyrolysis is considered a waste-to-energy technology that can help combat global warming by reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Fuel produced during pyrolysis can be refined to various commonly used grades such as bio-char, which is an excellent form of carbon and capture. According to the World Economic Forum, in its solid form, bio-char could be safely stored in the ground as a form of carbon-sequestration. This closes the linear loop from production-consumption-waste, by creating a resource where waste generates wealth. This process is not only realistically appealing, but also a great example of a circular economy.

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