Metric loss

Pitt Study: Global Plastics Trade Accounts for 350 Million Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide

The “circular” economy with higher recycling rates could reduce the impact

  • Reid Frazier

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 is traded across international borders – typically from oil and gas-producing countries to those with large manufacturing sectors, such as China.

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

“It’s 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 that footprint, to promote a “circular” economy, Khanna said. Only around 9% of all plastics are recycled.

By 2050, plastics are expected to account for 15% of all global greenhouse gases. Scientists say it is imperative to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to limit the worst effects of climate change.

Khanna said most recycling is now a form of “downcycling”, where materials like plastic bottles are repurposed as lower-grade 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 constituent parts, is a 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 recover the building blocks” of the material, Khanna said.

Khanna said that for this to happen, it will take government action to fund research and provide incentives for companies to improve recycling techniques.

“Right now I think there’s 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 of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and microplastics – tiny particles that escape into the environment as materials degrade – have been find in arctic ice, Mariana Trench, and in baby feces.

The study found that since 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 around the world “may only require action in a few key countries,” the authors say.

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

He said a potential part of the solution is to reduce the circulation of plastics by banning certain single-use plastics – such as shopping bags and utensils – such as many countries around the world started doing.

Another possible solution is a regulatory concept, which is also gaining popularity in Europe, of “extended producer responsibility”, which requires companies – rather than local governments and consumers – to ensure that plastics are disposed of correctly. .

“As soon as you deny responsibility, 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’s much easier to dispose of.”

Correction: The title of the original version of this story has been corrected to indicate the amount of carbon dioxide attributed to the global trade in plastics.