Published: Sun, August 05, 2018
Research | By Jody Lindsey

Degrading plastics emit greenhouse gases

Degrading plastics emit greenhouse gases

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

"Due to the longevity of plastics and the large amounts of plastic persisting in the environment, questions related to the role of plastic in the [methane and ethylene] global budgets should be prioritized and addressed by the scientific community", concluded the authors.

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.

The "most prolific emitter" was polyethylene, which is used in shopping bags and is the most produced and discarded synthetic polymer in the world, said the report.

University of Hawaii researchers have discovered that plastics degrading in the environment are even more harmful than once thought.

The SOEST researchers have made the unexpected discovery that plastics produce methane and ethylene when exposed to sunlight. The science team tested polycarbonate, acrylic, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene, high-density polyethylene and low-density polyethylene (LDPE)-materials used to make food storage, textiles, construction materials, and various plastic goods.

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In order to limit the overall emissions of greenhouse gases from plastics, Royer is now working to devise estimates of the amount of plastic that is exposed to the environment in terrestrial and oceanic regions, worldwide.

A study in the journal PLOS ONE on Wednesday found that degrading plastics emit powerful greenhouse gases like methane and ethylene, and are a previously unaccounted-for source of these heat-trapping pollutants. Once the process had been initiated during daylight hours, the emission of these gases continued in the dark. "With time, these defects increase the surface area available for further photo-chemical degradation and therefore contribute to an acceleration of the rate of gas production".

She said smaller "microplastics" - tiny particles that are eventually produced in the environment by degradation - could further accelerate greenhouse gas production. Some estimates say the figure will double over the next 20 years.

"Considering the amounts of plastic washing ashore on our coastlines our finding provides further evidence that we need to stop plastic production, especially single-use plastic", said David Karl, of the University of Hawaii.

Greenhouse gases directly influence climate change, which affects sea level and global temperatures, among other things.

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