Disposable Plastics Play A Role In Exacerbating Climate Change

Disposable Plastics Play A Role In Exacerbating Climate Change

Opinions on topical issues from thought leaders, columnists and editors.

By : Dr Rulia Akhtar

Plastics are necessary raw materials for everyday items including garments, cutlery, appliances and food containers. World plastic manufacturing was approximately 370 million tonnes annually before the COVID-19 epidemic. In 2021, it rose to 390.7 million tonnes.

The demand for plastics is driven by consumer behaviour and product makers. Plastics have the special quality of being thin and malleable. Plastics have been employed by numerous sectors to lower item loads and improve product design possibilities.

An emerging established ecological issue is plastic garbage. Because plastic is produced using petroleum and waste is disposed of improperly, the fast growth of plastic production and consumption has created a damaging cycle of pollution and emitting greenhouse gases.

Consumer behaviour

The manufacture and use of plastics are influenced by consumer behaviour.

Single-use plastics are made with the intention that they will only be used once and then thrown away by the user. These polymers are a major contributing factor to our disposable society since they put ease ahead of longevity and frequent usage. Half of the more than 300 million tonnes of plastic generated annually worldwide are single-use materials. Single-use plastics include straws, coffee mugs, bags for grocery shopping, drink and beverage bottles, and throwaway plastic pockets.

These days, both the manufacturing and consumption of plastic have increased dramatically worldwide. By 2050, the world’s plastic manufacturing is expected to reach 1,000 million metric tonnes per annum (MTpa), up from 470 million MTpa in 2022. Up to five trillion plastic bags are used annually, and one million plastic bottles are purchased worldwide each minute. Half of all plastics manufactured are made for single use, yet plastic output is still increasing.

Packaging, including single-use plastic goods for food and drink containers, uses about 36 per cent of all plastics produced. Roughly 85 per cent of this plastic is disposed of as unregulated waste or in landfills. Approximately 50 per cent of plastic waste is disposed of improperly, with the majority being burned or discarded into the environment. Around the world, single-use plastics, such as used packaging, accounted for over 238 million metric tonnes of garbage in 2020.

Accordingly, UNEP projects that by 2040, this plastic waste will amount to 408 million metric tonnes annually if no major changes are made. Global data reveal that 13 million tonnes of plastic bags are discarded into the ocean annually, out of a total of five trillion bags used annually. Every minute, approximately one million plastic bottles are purchased, and each year, plastic kills 100,000 marine animals.

Nine billion plastics are thought to be consumed annually by Malaysians, the majority of which wind up in the country’s oceans. According to Dutch academic Lourens JJ Meijer, Malaysia is the primary country responsible for the majority of the plastic pollution in the ocean, ranking third out of the top ten.

Malaysia eighth-most-polluted country

According to a World Wildlife Fund report from 2022, Malaysia recorded 16.8 kilogrammes of plastic packaging per person annually. Malaysia, which is rated as the eighth-most-polluted country in the world, has seen a significant increase in environmental issues associated with plastic waste. It is predicted that between 0.14 and 0.37 million tonnes of improperly handled plastic garbage from Malaysia ended up in the ocean. This comes on top of the 0.94 million tonnes of plastic garbage that the nation produces. Researchers predict that by 2040, plastic will account for 19 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

The primary contributors to climate change are single-use plastics.

First of all, because it is made from fossil fuels, enormous volumes of GHG, including CO2 and CH4, are released into the atmosphere during the extraction and production of these plastics. These emissions exacerbate climate change by adding to the general rise in greenhouse gas concentrations.

Furthermore, carbon emissions are produced during the transportation of raw materials to plastic manufacturing facilities and the subsequent distribution of plastic products to end users. This covers the emissions from transportation-related vehicles like trucks, ships and aeroplanes.

Third, single-use plastics that are thrown away frequently wind up in landfills where their oxygen-starved decomposition releases methane. Strong greenhouse gas methane has a much greater short-term potential for global warming than carbon dioxide.

Fourth, a few disposable plastics are burned in order to manage waste. Air pollution and climate change are exacerbated by incineration, which releases CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

Fifth, ecosystems and biodiversity are impacted by climate change. By upsetting ecosystems and endangering wildlife, plastic pollution aggravates these effects, which in turn can further upset carbon cycles and intensify climate change.

Lastly, one way to lessen the impact of single-use plastics on climate change is to reduce their production and consumption. This can be accomplished by taking steps like cutting back on the use of plastic, encouraging the use of reusable items as alternatives, putting efficient waste management plans into place, and switching to more environmentally friendly products and procedures.

Malaysia needs to switch from single-use plastic bags to reusable ones in order to fulfil its 2030 environmental goals and create a more sustainable and healthy environment.


Dr Rulia Akhtar is a Research Fellow with the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies (UAC), Office of Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research & Innovation), Universiti Malaya, Malaysia.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of BERNAMA)

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