How does human population and consumption of plastic influence climate change?
Climate change is defined as a change in global patterns or regional climate patterns, in particular a change apparent from the mid to 20th century onwards attributed largely to increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In this essay I will investigate the significance of plastic use and how this contributes to the climate crisis, evaluating how we can hope to reverse the negative impacts of human activity.
Every person on the planet, directly or indirectly, produces a certain amount of carbon emissions. As the human population continues to grow, projections indicate that by 2050 our population will exceed 9 billion, whilst we continue to consume more than ever. In conjunction, growing consumerism and population levels will continue to exacerbate the extent of climate change within our own lifetime, with public demand fueling consumerism. This has catastrophic implications for our climate through global warming. The cause of this reckless environmental destruction stems from much of society’s primary aim of financial profit, not environmental welfare. Choosing green solutions can be seen as an additional cost to businesses. However, this philosophy of resource utilisation is closely tied to capitalism and is not a political disposition adopted by every single nation. Developed countries typically hold more responsibility than those which are developing due to higher rates of consumption. Furthermore, despite both consumerism and population expanding on a macro level, the two are not directly proportional on a national level. For example, South Sudan saw a population rise of 3.8% last year  and in contrast, the USA increased by just 0.5%. However, if the entire world was to consume as much as the USA, we would require roughly 3.9 earths to sustain humanity. Nevertheless, trends in consumerism are shifting, with the notable growth of the new middle class in China and India, in line with increasingly stable and developed economies across the globe.
Despite plastic being a relatively new phenomenon, it is a driving factor behind the hockey-stick-graph shape that maps our past and present greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The process of producing plastic and its disposal are both significant contributors to climate change. For example, in 2019, the production of plastics added more than 850 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and without drastic action this figure will only continue to grow. The problem with plastic production is that plastics are commonly derived from the three non-renewable sources, in particular, crude oil. Scientists have advised that keeping fossil fuels in the ground is essential to climate mitigation and yet, we continue to drill them out in order to sustain our plastic addiction. In turn, this transfers them from the slow carbon cycle to the fast.
Although plastic can now be produced rapidly, it decomposes slowly, taking more than 400 years to degrade. After brief use, it often reaches landfill or oceans where sunlight and heat cause the plastic to release powerful GHGs such as carbon dioxide and methane, leading to a destructive positive feedback loop, as the GHGs from the plastic will warm the climate further, catalysing the breakdown of plastic to a greater extent. Such collections of degrading plastic can be witnessed in the North Pacific Ocean, where an area of roughly 1,400,000 km² coined ‘The Plastic Soup’ is smothered entirely with plastic debris. It is estimated that by mid- century, oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish, and of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that have been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste. Plastic is found in almost every consumer item from the packaging of food, to cosmetic products, to clothing. Additionally, with the rise of fast fashion and mass production of cheap clothing most commonly made of polyester, the fashion industry collectively accounts for 10% of annual carbon dioxide emissions alone.
We have become so dependent on plastic as a resource that it is hardly surprising that we are struggling to reduce the scale of its consumption. Nevertheless, it is a global problem which requires a global solution and for any progression to be made, it is vital that responsibility is taken, and accountability is ensured. The UK exports around two thirds of its plastic waste for financial ease, effectively relocating the problem, not resolving it. Consequently, the majority of exported plastic is destined to never be recycled, with much of it illegally burnt on mass in countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and China. Furthermore, manufacturers are also disconnected from the disposal of the very products they produce, meaning that there is no need for them to consider how this is done as they fail to perceive it as their problem. Consequently, it is vital that different parties in the entire process remain connected to each other and informed about the issue before and after receiving any form of plastic. Governments need to ensure that they take advantage of COP meetings such as the upcoming one in Glasgow later this year, creating legally binding targets instead of solely a ‘global consensus’ for both production and consumption of all plastics. Without national action embedded within global cooperation, precautions taken by consumers to reduce plastic waste will be undermined and will have little impact without support at a higher level. Similarly, companies need to make plastic- free alternatives accessible to all demographics of the consumer market, as any additional fee imposed on plastic- free goods will only serve as a financial deterrent to consumers, particularly the 14.5 million people who are living in poverty in Britain.
In conclusion, the plastic problem is not one that can be solved rapidly due to society’s heavy reliance on it. However, measures to improve the global framework that supports the entire life-cycle from creation to destruction can be introduced by those with power. This will increase the efficiency of the situation, and cut out the vast amount of excess plastic waste made possible by mass production and our own desire for convenience.
Senior Winner (ages 11-17) = Charlotte Kemp, aged 16