Plastic wastes contribute to the greenhouse effect | Sarah-Jeanne ROYER | TEDxClermont


Translator: Jessica Yu
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven I should have been in the ocean surfing, but my passion for finding a solution
to the plastic-pollution issue had me in the lab. I was taking up where
my colleagues had left off, and the reason that I’m here today is to explain to you my research
over the last three years. Let’s take it back from the start. Plastic showed up 70 years ago. It brought convenience to people. Plastic is very cheap,
so it has a very low cost; it has durability,
and it’s very convenient. According to Times Magazine in 1955, plastic made people’s life easier. They focus on the fact that disposable dishes and plastic would make the life of housewives
much more convenient because they will spend
less time washing the dishes, and gain time to go shopping. Overall, plastic had a big impact in different spheres of our everyday life, such as food, healthcare, transportation, plastic surgery and even clothing. Let’s take a look at your clothes – or your neighbor’s clothes
if you feel comfortable. Look at the tag and realize that most of our clothes are made out of polyester,
nylon and lycra. All these materials are plastic. And while doing yoga, you may only be covered in plastic. Namaste. Plastic has brought great convenience
to people around the world and is used on an everyday basis. We all touch plastic today. But the short term
convenience that it brings has a very long-term ecological cost. When you picture paradise, this is what you picture. This is Hawaii. But this is also Hawaii. This is also called away. When you take a plastic bottle
and you throw it away, this is where it may end up. Hawaii is known for its plastic pollution. On our beaches, more than 95% of the plastic comes from outside of Hawaii. Mostly from Asia because of the geographical
position of the Hawaiian islands. But overall, we are all responsible for this crisis because we all consume plastic. Out of 8,300 million
metric tons of plastic produced to date since the 1950s, about 30% is currently being used, and a small share, that is recycled. Then about 10%
of the plastic is incinerated. But 60% of all this plastic that’s been made since the 1950s is currently in the environment
and in landfills. This is an enormous problem, and we are far away from fixing it. Plastic production in the next 32 years
is going to ramp up. The projections are that 12,000 million
metric tons of this plastic will end up in our environment
and landfills by 2050. This is double what we
have accumulated in 70 years. At the University of Hawaii, at the “Center for Microbial Oceanography:
Research and Education,” we study the degradation of plastic. The finding of our research
showed that the impact of plastic is even worse than what we thought. Let me share with you what we discovered. My colleagues Sara Ferron
and Samual Wilson were making measurements of the biological production
of methane in seawater, and the numbers they got were way higher than what they expected. They went back to
their experimental protocol, and they realized that most of the methane was coming from nonbiological sources; it was coming from the bottles
in which they were incubating seawater. The bottles were made out
of a specific plastic: high density polyethylene, also named HDPE. HDPE will react because of the sunlight, will degrade and emit methane. Plastic emits methane; methane is a greenhouse gas. Methane makes up
20% of all greenhouse gases. Methane is 21 times
more powerful than CO2. You take 21 molecule of CO2, and it corresponds
to one molecule of methane. This is also one of the reasons why so many scientists are focusing
on the the production of methane, from the permafrost
to agricultural practices. So this unexpected discovery was the start of my
two-year post doctorate at the University of Hawaii, where I focused mostly on the emissions of greenhouse gases
from plastic in the environment. After this mind-blowing finding, we expanded our research. We selected the seven most commonly
used types of plastic in the world. Low density polyethylene, LDPE, was the plastic type that will produce
the most greenhouse gases. Some examples of LPDE are plastic bags, shampoo bottles, containers for food and vegetables. A lot of the LDPE products
are single-use plastic: we buy it, we use it, and then we throw it away
in a few minutes. Unfortunately, polyethylene, or LDPE, is also the most produced, consumed and discarded type of plastic
in the environment. It also degrades quick,
because of its weak chemical structure, and eventually contributes
to the pool of micro plastic. As plastic degrades in the environment
because of the sunlight, the plastic will start having cracks, bits, micro fractures, the surface area of the plastic
will increase with time, and then, more greenhouse gases will be produced. Let’s think about a bottle. The bottle of plastic
that you bought at a shop produces very little greenhouse gases, but with time, the same bottle of plastic will degrade, the surface area will increase, and eventually, it will
break down in small pieces, and with time, more and more gases will be produced. Let’s put numbers here. For example, if we think of LDPE powder,
and LDPE pellets – pellets are basically nurdles; they are virgin plastic used by the plastic industry
to make other plastic items. For the LDPE powder, we will get 488 times
more methane produced than for the pellets. This means then, as plastic degrades in the environment, all this plastic
that we’ve been discarding is currently degrading, so more and more gases
will be produced with time. As an oceanographer, most of my work is in the ocean. Most of the experiments we did were to look at plastic
submerged in water. But as a comparison, we took plastic submerged in water, we compared it to plastic in air. This is when things got really scary. We basically saw that the plastic exposed to air will produce two times more methane than when it’s submerged in water and 76 times more ethylene – which is another greenhouse gas – than when plastic is in water. This changed things. It means that not only
the plastic in the ocean but the plastic all around us
in the environment – in your back yard, your car,
toys at the beach – are currently emitting
greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change. Now we have to investigate more and see if it is
a significant contribution. These results only further the need to find broader solutions
to our overconsumption of plastic. I’m not here to vilify plastic; I’m here to understand the science behind the emissions
of greenhouse gases from plastic. Of course, there are places around the world
where plastic has saved life, but overall, the plastic we use is unnecessary
and is only used as a convenience. Plastic is designed to last a long time, yet we still use it
only for a few minutes. When we are done using plastic, it may end up in the environment, in Hawaii, and this for an
undetermined period of time. It can easily last longer
than your own lifetime or even your children’s life. What to do next? I see this issue as a two-way approach. We have to think of the past, and we have to think of the future. So to deal with the past and all this plastic
that’s been produced, we have to find reactive solutions. But then, to deal with the future, we need to find a proactive solution to prevent the creation
of the future plastic. For the past, we have all this plastic
in the environment, and we only need to remove it, as simple as that. We can remove plastic
through beach cleanups, ocean cleanup, drain river cleanup, even plogging, that I started in Barcelona in 2009, long before the word even existed. And also there is recycling
and waste-to-energy. More effective than reactive solutions
are proactive solutions and how to deal with the future plastic. We have to be proactive. This means dealing with the issue
from where it’s coming from rather than where it ends up, like Hawaii. It means finding better material,
better technology and decrease the plastic
production from the source. So imagine yourself
after a long day at work, you go back home,
you’re about to take your keys, and then you see some water
flowing from under your front door. You rush quickly into the house,
you walk to the bathroom, and you see that the water
is coming from there. You look and you see
the bathtub overflowing. So at this point, you have two solutions. You either run out of the house,
you take a bucket, you bail out the water
from the bathtub; or you have the second solution, that is drastically much more efficient: you look at the source of the problem, and you turn off the tap. So next time you throw plastic away, think about a way to avoid it and think of Hawaii. Thank you. Merci. (Applause)

Comments 4

  • We could issue a penalty against the production of plastic, like the carbon tax, and then issue certificates for contributing to cleaning the ocean. The penalties would cause the price of the product to go up and the certificates would have the potential to not only offset the penalties but also if enough clean-up is done certificates could allow the product to be sold at a lower price for the same profit?

  • Braviiisima Sarah!,

  • Love from Madrid❤️

  • Excellent Speech on Plastics and finding a solution. We have a local initiative "Menos Plastic es Fantastico" in Mahahual/Costa Maya where masses of plastic debris wash up on our coastline daily. We offer beach clean ups & awareness of the danger of single use plastics on our local environment as it is also entering our food chain. We must also sanction the production of single use plastics!

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