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Plastic pollution and the climate crisis

How our world’s rubbish problem is connected to climate change, and how both are affecting people in poverty the most.

By Sarah Wiggins.

Plastic pollution and the climate crisis are both affecting people living in poverty the most, and burning fossil fuels and plastics is making the climate emergency worse. Image: Daniel Msirikale / Tearfund.

It’s easy to think of plastic pollution and the climate emergency as two separate issues. But are the two crises connected, and how much does plastic contribute to global warming?

Just like climate change, plastic pollution is affecting those living in poverty the most. And both burning fossil fuels and plastics are playing significant roles in destroying God’s creation.

Flooding disasters

The climate emergency has led, for instance, to an increased likelihood of extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall. Add to this the fact that limited waste collection in low- or middle-income countries means plastic rubbish often has to be dumped, so it ends up blocking drains and waterways, and the resulting flooding in these communities is far worse.

Plastic production and carbon emissions

Almost all plastic is made from oil and gas: fossil fuels. The process of making plastic releases harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, making the climate emergency worse. In fact, if plastic pollution were a country, it would be the sixth-largest greenhouse gas emitter – and it’s only getting bigger. Plastics is now the fastest-growing source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that behind these two issues lie some of the same companies. ExxonMobil, for instance, is one of the world’s biggest oil companies, and the world leader in producing virgin polymers used in single-use plastics. Last year they made the highest profits in history for a Western oil company, at a time when conflict and the cost-of-living crisis clearly show we should be investing more in renewables and providing clean, affordable energy access for all.

Burning issue

Just as at the start of the life of plastics there is oil and therefore carbon emissions, we also find carbon emissions at the end of their life too. Two billion people around the world have no safe way to dispose of rubbish, meaning many are forced to dump or burn their plastic waste. Not only does burning plastic waste release greenhouse gases, exacerbating the climate crisis, but it also releases toxic fumes that are deadly for people’s health.

The first phase of our Rubbish Campaign in 2019 targeted some of the top global distributors of single-use plastic. Tearfund’s research across six countries showed that 4.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions are produced per year from the open burning of Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever’s plastic pollution. Preventing these emissions would equate to taking 2 million cars off the UK’s roads.

What can I do?

So, how can we – as individual Christians and as the church – be part of bringing about change, and what might be next in the interlinked stories of climate change and plastics?

As individuals it’s very hard to wean ourselves off either fossil fuels or single-use plastics – and many of us are really trying! As a society we’re ‘locked in’ to them. We can ask ourselves: How has this happened and what can we do to change it?

Increasingly, I remember to start by dreaming about the future I hope for. Can you picture clear rivers free from rubbish, or communities where local authorities are helping reduce, recycle and responsibly manage waste, so people are no longer forced to burn it? Turning the images you dread into dreams is not just wishful thinking – in my view, it is essential if we’re going to have the motivation we need to persist in our campaigning.

It’s also important to remember the positive steps we’re already seeing. We can pause and thank God that wind and solar were the European Union’s top energy source in 2022 and that Brazil’s new president has promised net-zero deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon by 2030. And in the first phase of our Rubbish Campaign we saw great wins – which you can read about in this article.

Of course, we can also take action. As well as taking steps to reduce our own rubbish, we can speak up to governments and companies and show them that we won’t allow the destruction of this beautiful world that God has created and that he loves.

You can take action today through our Rubbish Campaign! Sign our petition to call on world leaders to develop a plastics treaty that ends plastic pollution and its impacts on people in poverty. You can also take more in-depth actions, such as doing a talk in your church or running a children’s event in your school or Sunday school. Visit the Rubbish Campaign page for more information.

I am looking forward to seeing what we achieve together, and let’s remember that in addressing plastic pollution, we’re also helping to stop climate change.

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