Global warming is an ongoing issue that has affected not just humans, but every living being that one can think of. The increasing temperature of the planet has pinned down mother nature, causing massive extinction of marine and land species, as well as a drastic increase in natural disasters. Although global warming today is primarily a result of fossil fuel emissions, there is another pollutant that is overlooked in this particular scenario: plastic bags.
Surprisingly, there are a number of ways how plastic bags contribute to global warming. Plastic is notorious for being the greatest pollutant on land and sea, but the contribution of plastic bags is often not mentioned when it comes to polluting the air, and quite understandably so. Having polluted the land and sea at such a massive scale, one would easily overlook the effect plastic may be causing to the air around us.
Why plastic bags?
If you’re thinking about why I am focusing on plastic bags instead of just plastic in general, it’s because of a couple of reasons. Plastic bags are one of the most commonly used items around the globe, and unsurprisingly one of the greatest pollutants as well.
In 2017, Ocean Conservancy had initiated a coastal cleanup drive, where volunteers participated in cleaning up beaches in over 100 countries. The results from the drive showed that plastic grocery bags and other plastic bags contributed to over 1.5 million pieces of trash found on the coastlines, which was only surpassed by cigarette buds and food wrappers. The sheer abundance of plastic bags on the coastlines would be enough to give you an idea of the plastic bag problem that we have on our hands.
Another reason why we’re focused on how plastic bags contribute to global warming is because of the additives in the plastic bags themselves. During the manufacturing of plastic bags, special additives are included to create the soft, flexible structure that we often associate with plastic bags. Therefore, when these plastic bags pollute the air, the chemicals released during these emissions cause an even more severe impact, which ultimately contributes to global warming.
Now, let’s move on to how plastic bags contribute to global warming…
Carbon Dioxide from oil extraction
Before plastic bags even come into existence, the extraction of oil to make plastic bags itself is setting off massive amounts of pollutants in the air, one of which is Carbon Dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas. Millions of barrels of oil each year are extracted to produce about 1 trillion plastic bags used annually across the globe.
The extraction of oil causes huge amounts of Carbon Dioxide emissions along with other greenhouse gases. As the process of oil extraction is often uncontained, the gases simply release into the atmosphere and absorb massive amounts of heat, warming the planet as a result.
Soot from incineration
Single-use plastic bags are the biggest occupants of landfills across the globe, which is one of the reasons why plastic bags should be banned from use. Since landfills often have limited space and are not made for trash to decompose, workers in landfills resort to incinerating plastic bags in mass amounts. When these plastic bags burn, they release a number of deadly chemicals that may prove to be fatal when breathed in significant amounts.
However, what really destroys the atmosphere is the creation of soot, a black, flaky substance that is produced when petroleum is not burned completely. Sadly, the incineration process in most of the world is done in an uncontrolled environment, and once soot gets suspended in the atmosphere, it begins to absorb solar radiation and converts it into heat. Soot is the second greatest cause of global warming after carbon dioxide, and one of the primary byproducts produced during the incineration of plastic bags.
Methane and Ethylene during photodegradation
One of the traits of plastic bags that makes them especially harmful to wildlife is photodegradation. As we are well aware, plastic bags in the ocean are extremely dangerous, killing marine life and disrupting the entire ecosystem. The ocean acts as a breeding ground for photodegradation, breaking down plastic bags into microplastics in the presence of direct sunlight, which brings us to how plastic bags contribute to global warming while suspended in the ocean.
While breaking down, the plastic bags release massive amounts of Ethylene and Methane into the atmosphere, both of which are greenhouse gases. These gases, in turn, contribute to global warming, which further accelerates the photodegradation process in the oceans. Photodegradation of plastic bags in the oceans has set off a vicious cycle that continues to destroy our planet with each passing second, and sadly there is little that we can do to reverse this process.
Although photodegradation is a major issue for all types of plastics suspended in the ocean, plastic bags, in particular, remain the greatest threat. Their low density allows them to stay afloat and be in direct contact with sunlight, whereas the soft structure allows the sunlight to photodegrade plastic bags easier than other types of plastics suspended in the ocean.
How do we fight global warming caused by plastic bags?
Unfortunately, little can be done about reversing the damage caused by plastic bags that have already been manufactured, incinerated, or photodegraded, but there are steps we can take to mitigate the contribution of plastic bags towards greater global warming in the future.
First, we must step away from all types of plastic bags in our daily lives. From grocery bags to garbage bags; try to cut off as much single-use plastic from your life as possible. Instead, opt for more environmentally friendly alternatives such as biodegradable garbage bags and eco friendly shopping bags.
Secondly, try to replace items that are made from trees or wood pulp with items that are made from more sustainable alternatives like bamboo. Trees are an important line of defense against global warming, absorbing carbon dioxide and cooling the Earth’s temperature. However, trees take several years to fully grow, and with the dramatic increase in trees being cut down over the past few decades, this line of defense is becoming weaker, leaving the planet susceptible to harsher effects of global warming.
Bamboo is a sustainable alternative that offers all the properties of a regular tree but can grow back in just a matter of days. Today, several manufacturers are offering bamboo-based alternatives for almost every wood-based household item such as furniture, flooring, and even toilet paper!
Lastly, do your part in keeping the places around you clean. Always dispose of plastic properly, not just in your house but in public places as well. Try to participate in clean-up drives as a volunteer and contribute towards fighting global warming caused by plastic bags and plastic waste in general. We can never rid ourselves of the plastic problem unless we start making a positive change in our cleaning habits. It may take some effort, but if we don’t take action ourselves, then who’s going to do it for us?