Degrading plastics emit greenhouse gases

05 Août, 2018, 15:58 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • Plastic pollution at Kamilo Point Big Island in Hawai earlier this year. Sarah Jeanne Royer

Plastic pollution at Kamilo Point, Big Island on February 14, 2018.

Methane emissions, mainly caused by burning fossil fuels, are a major driver of global warming, putting them in the crosshairs of the global fight against climate change.

About 6.3 billion tons of plastic have been generated since it was first mass produced about 70 years ago. As plastics degrade, they emit a range of chemicals-some of which have a deleterious effect on ecosystems and organisms.

Polyethylene - the substance used in shopping bags - was found to be the most prolific emitter of both gases.

These materials used to make food packaging, textiles, construction materials and various plastic goods.

All of these plastics were found to produce the harmful emissions, including polycarbonate, acrylic, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene, high-density polyethylene, and low-density polyethylene (LDPE).

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According to an article published by the team in the online science journal PLOS ONE, the researchers exposed a variety of plastic materials available in the market to sunlight for long periods of time, and confirmed that polyethylene, which is widely used for wrapping and other purposes, emitted the largest amount of methane and ethylene.

And once initiated by this solar radiation the emission of these gases continued - even in the dark. "This source is not yet budgeted for when assessing global methane and ethylene cycles, and may be significant".

"We attribute the increased emission of greenhouse gases with time from the virgin pellets to photo-degradation of the plastic, as well as the formation of a surface layer marked with fractures, micro-cracks and pits", said lead author Sarah-Jeanne Royer, a post-doctoral scholar in the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) at the time of this investigation.

The study also says that microplastics, which stem from the breakdown of plastic products, may further accelerate the production of gas. Microplastics - smaller pieces of plastic particles found to move up the food chain and in almost every corner of the world, including Antarctica - may further accelerate GHG production.

Sir David Attenborough revealed during Blue Planet 2 that "we dump eight million tonnes of plastic into the sea every year" which is killing and harming marine life.

Greenhouse gases have a direct impact on climate change and have been previously linked to changing sea levels, increasing global temperatures, drought and erosion.

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