Degrading plastics emit greenhouse gases

05 August, 2018, 15:55 | Author: Kelly Sanders
  • Plastic bags dumped in the sea linked to climate change in new study

This is Dr. Sarah-Jeanne Royer holding microplastics at Kamilo Point on Big Island on February 14, 2018. "Based on the rates measured in this study and the amount of plastic produced worldwide CH4 [methane] production by plastics is likely to be an insignificant component of the global CH4 budget", they write.

Taiwan started recycling plastic more than a decade ago and today it boasts more than 70 percent recycling rates, according to the Environmental Protection Administration. As plastics degrade, they emit a range of chemicals-some of which have a deleterious effect on ecosystems and organisms.

Polyethylene, which is used in shopping bags, is the most produced and discarded synthetic polymer across the globe.

Greenpeace senior oceans campaigner Louise Edge, said:"Ocean plastic pollution has already been described as a "toxic time-bomb" by the United Nations, and this new study suggests that when plastic degrades in sunlight, it emits greenhouse gases which are harmful to our climate".

They found that plastic bags produced the greenhouse gases when exposed to sunlight - but once initiated, the emissions continued, even in the dark.

Methane is about 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than the most commonly cited greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.


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). These materials are used for making construction materials, textiles, food storage, and many different plastic goods.

Adding to concerns about the damage plastic is causing, the researchers found that the emission rate of the gases from virgin pellets of plastic increased during a 212-day experiment and that LDPE debris found in the ocean also emitted greenhouse gases when exposed to sunlight.

"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", stated Sarah-Jeanne Royer, lead author and post-doctoral scholar in the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) at the time of this investigation.

She said smaller "microplastics" - tiny particles that are eventually produced in the environment by degradation - could further accelerate greenhouse gas production.

This newly discovered source of methane has not been factored into global estimates and could prove to be significant in future predictions.

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