Environmental awareness is still historically new and, consequently, so are the actions to fight the environmental harms caused by humankind. Climate change is already well-known in data and counts with an international legal framework, especially since 1992, with the establishment of the UNFCCC. The plastic pollution is newer, still lacks data and international legal solutions. But the two biggest environmental problems caused by humankind have more in common than we may think. The plastic pollution by itself is already a huge threat to nature and to human health, but it relates to several other threats, and even well-intended actions to face it may end contributing to climate change.
The great variety of polymers, their excellent properties, low price, versatility, durability, and wide range of use lead to the growth of plastics use and production. This was the result of a direct outgrowth of chemical industries developed during World War II and quickly polymer items became symbolic of the convenience of modern-day living. If we consider, however, that it can take up to 500 years for plastics to degrade in nature, virtually every plastic ever produced is still around in some way, from the product itself to being broken into microplastics and spread in nature.
The increasing production and consumption of plastic products are leading, then, to an unprecedented environmental crisis. 50% of the plastic produced is used only once, and typically for no longer than 3 minutes. 26% of the volume of plastic is used for packaging purposes, which usually have more sustainable alternatives. Only around 9% of all plastics produced in the world is recycled. As a result, even in the most optimistic estimates, each year 8 million tons of plastics end up in the oceans, and, if the pace continues, there will be more plastics than fishes in the oceans by 2050. The numbers go on and on, but the results are simple to understand: animals are dying from starvation and entanglement, and humans are eating, drinking, and even breathing plastics, with consequences to health that are mostly still unknown.
The pollution by itself already brings several negative impacts related to climate change. Plastics in the oceans interfere with carbon fixation capacity. They affect: (i) phytoplankton photosynthesis and growth; (ii) bringing toxic effects on zooplankton; (iii) marine biological pump; (iv) ocean carbon stock. To the point that the restriction in the carbon fixation capacity may take up to 13% of the carbon budget until 2050, making it impossible to achieve the Paris historic goal to keep global temperatures rising by below 1.5ºC or even 2.0ºC by 2100.
Similarly, the plastic life chain also leads to several negative impacts related to climate change, from the extraction of raw materials, passing by transportation and manufacturing, until waste treatment. In extraction, it is known that oils and gas industries – which are used to make plastics – are the main sources of GHGs emissions. Plastics manufacturing is also a high source of emissions, as are all manufacturers, and their rate of contribution depends on the efficiency of each facility. Besides, waste treatment has several undesired ramifications. Even the recycling of plastic waste energy releases a lot of GHGs. Furthermore, the collection is still often failing around the world and, even when it works, the inability to deal with the huge amount of plastic waste leads to either world plastic waste trade or incineration, both contributing to aggravating climate change. Finally, even the breaking down of a plastic called LDPE – one of the most common types found in the oceans (it comes from products like six-pack rings and plastic bags) – releases greenhouse gases in the environment.
Additionally, bioplastics – another common way appointed as a solution – is not as beneficial as announced. Firstly, bioplastics include more than one kind of material, and not all of them help the fight against plastic pollution. Secondly, even if it refers to biodegradable plastics – which decompose into non-polluting substances – it is only helpful if adequate collection and compost are available, which is not true for the majority of the globe.
Action is, therefore, multilateral and complex, and is severely influenced by alleged solutions that mislead public awareness in a risky « out of sight, out of mind ». Together with the bioplastics, recycling, and the world trade of plastic waste is a good example of an apparent solution that misleads the public. The exports are mostly done by developed countries and the imports are mostly done by developing countries and, although it is meant for recycling, in low-income countries, 90% of waste is often irregularly disposed or burned. And even for the plastics that do reach a recycling facility, there are reports of poor working conditions and dischargement of contaminated water into local creeks from such factories.
Finally, the scenario becomes even worse when we realize that a great part of the plastic contribution to climate change is not accounted for, leading to a lack of action and to miscalculations in the climate targets projections.
In the meanwhile, national and regional laws are only slowly walking towards helping with solutions, which are, mostly, scattered and uncoordinated. The case is even worse with international law, which currently has almost no provisions for the prevention of plastic pollution and absolutely no provision for the recovery of the plastics already in the oceans. On the other hand, solutions seem to be available and increasing. Some examples are new pigments to facilitate recycling, edible packaging, sustainable biobased plastics, refuse single-use plastics, partial or complete bans on single-use plastics, microorganisms that decompose plastics, initiatives such as The Ocean Cleanup, and so on. They all also have, of course, different kinds and extents of limitations, but what all of them have in common is that they still need to be embraced.
All in all, there are several reasons why we are failing in the fight against plastic pollution. The effects on climate change are definitely one of them.
Luísa Cortat Simonetti Gonçalves Coutinho (Vitória, 1987) has a Law Degree (2007-2011) from Vitoria Law School (Faculdade de Direito de Vitoria – FDV), a Physics Degree (2005-2009) from the Federal University of Espirito Santo, and a Master’s Degree in Fundamental Rights and Warranties (2012-2013) from FDV. She specialized in Environment and Economics (2014-2015) at the Federal University of Parana. She was an Erasmus Mundus student at the University of Coimbra (2010-2011). In 2016 and 2017 she started the double degree PhD programme at FDV and Maastricht University, during which she spent 13 months (2017-2018) in Maastricht, with a scholarship from CAPES. She will have her defense in Maastricht on June 11th, 2020, and her defense in Brazil is expected to August, 2020.
She is currently a guest researcher at the Max Planck Institute Luxembourg for International, European, and Regulatory Procedural Law (2020). In the past, she worked, among others, at FDV (2011-2019) as a lecturer, coordinator of extension activities, coordinator of institutional relations, and head of international relations office, and at the Secretary of State for the Environment and Water Resources of the State of Espirito Santo (2015-2016) as legal coordinator. She has also served as a civil diplomat representing Brazil in events like the IMF and World Bank Annual Meeting 2015 and the G20 Youth Summit Australia 2014, in this one as a head delegate. She was granted several academic awards, the latest one being the Green Talents Award 2019, which is granted by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research to honor young researchers, recognizing their outstanding achievements in making our societies more sustainable.
She has several works published, in peer-reviewed journals, book chapters, consultancies, and annals of events. Her areas of expertise and/or interest include international environmental law, human rights, law and economics, public international law, environmental law, and constitutional law.