Policy Update

First in Science: Plastic Pollution Source of Methane Emissions

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National

NCEL Point of Contact

Mara Herman
Environmental Health Manager

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Plastic Pollution Found To Emit Potent Greenhouse Gases As It Degrades

Plastics, which are mostly made from fossil fuels, have infiltrated every part of our daily lives. The pollution left behind from plastics can be found in the food we eat, the water we drink, and even the very depths of the ocean. Now this plastic pollution could be contributing to methane emissions.

The Study: Researchers analyzed various types of plastics in different natural settings, including exposure to solar radiation, ultraviolet radiation, and seawater. Once researchers determined which plastic type was emitting the highest levels of greenhouse gases, they tested to see if changes in the shape or density of the plastic impacted the levels of gases emitted.

Results: After testing several different types of plastic, it was found that polyethylene, the most commonly used type of plastic, emits the largest amount of methane gases. In addition, as the plastic degrades and breaks down into smaller pieces, it also emits more gases

What the complete impacts of this discovery mean in the long term and in terms of climate change are still unknown. However, as plastic production and pollution continue to increase, so will the amount of methane emissions coming from plastics.

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