In 2015, Texas A&M graduate student Christine Figgener recorded a video of her colleagues removing a straw lodged in a turtle’s nostril. The video went viral, inspiring people to take action. Since then, “skip the straw, save a turtle” has become a slogan for people determined to decrease their plastics use.

But critics say the marine impact of plastics is only part of the problem. “Plastic pollution is not just an oceans issue. It’s a climate issue and it’s a human health issue,” said Claire Arkin, communications coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a global network aiming to reduce pollution and eliminate waste incineration.

Plastics have become essential components of products and packaging because they’re durable, lightweight, and cheap. But though they offer numerous benefits, plastics originate as fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases from cradle to grave, according to a May 2019 report called “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet,” released by the Center for International Environmental Law, a nonprofit environmental law organization.

Under a business-as-usual scenario in which policies continue to foster plastics production, the sector’s fossil fuel consumption will only increase. Today, about 4-8% of annual global oil consumption is associated with plastics, according to the World Economic Forum. If this reliance on plastics persists, plastics will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050.

The “Hidden Costs” report suggests that a transition toward “zero waste” – the conservation of resources through responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of materials without incineration or landfilling – is the best path to reduce emissions. But getting there would require a huge cultural shift and a makeover for each step in a product’s life cycle.  […]