Metric loss

Pitt study: Global plastics trade represents 350 million tonnes of CO2

The amount of plastic traded between countries has the carbon footprint of a mid-sized European country, according to a new to study from the University of Pittsburgh.

Almost half of all plastics are traded across international borders – typically from oil and gas producing countries to those with large manufacturing sectors, like China.

Oil and gas are harvested and refined to make this plastic. The study found that plastics traded internationally created 350 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, roughly the same footprint as France or Italy.

“This is a huge problem,” said Vikas Khanna, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, and lead author of the study. “But at the same time, it’s a huge opportunity.”

Better recycling could reduce this footprint, to promote a “circular” economy, Khanna said. Only around 9 percent of all plastics are recycled.

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Opportunities to reduce plastic

By 2050, plastics are expected to account for 15% of all greenhouse gases in the world. Scientists say reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is imperative to limiting the worst effects of climate change.

Khanna said most of the recycling is now a form of “downcycling”, where materials like plastic bottles are reused as lower quality materials.

“Maybe you shred it into smaller particles and it can become fillers for something else,” Khanna said.

He said chemical recycling, where plastics are broken down into their building blocks, is one way to keep more virgin plastics out of landfills and the environment. A plastic bottle can then become… another plastic bottle.

“That way we don’t lose value, we get back the building blocks” of the material, Khanna said.

Khanna said for this to happen, the government will need to take steps to fund research and provide incentives for companies to improve recycling techniques.

“At the moment, I think there is a lack of incentives and there are no policies, at least in the United States,” Khanna said. These policies are starting to take hold in Europe in other countries, he said.

In addition to greenhouse gases, plastics pose other problems. Scientists estimate about 10 million metric tons plastics end up in the ocean every year, and microplastics – tiny particles that escape into the environment as materials break down – have been find in the arctic ice, the Marianne Trench, and in baby feces.

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The study found that, given that a handful of countries, such as the United States, China, Saudi Arabia and Germany, are responsible for the majority of plastics trade, the policies of only a few countries could have a significant impact on reducing plastic waste. Improving recycling practices globally “may only require interventions in a few key countries,” the authors say.

Making producers responsible for plastic waste

Daniel Posen, an assistant professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto, who was not involved in the study, said there were no quick fixes to solving the global plastics problem.

He said a potential part of the solution is to reduce the flow of plastics by banning certain single-use plastics – like shopping bags and utensils – like many countries around the world have started to do.

Another possible solution is a regulatory concept, increasingly popular in Europe, of ‘extended producer responsibility’, which requires companies – rather than local governments and consumers – to ensure that plastics are properly disposed of. .

“As soon as you reverse the blame, it’s no longer up to the consumer or governments to deal with it, but up to you as a business,” Posen said. “If you’re responsible as a company for proper disposal, you’re going to design a product that is much easier to dispose of. “

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