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Degrading plastics are contributing to climate change: Scientists discover some greenhouse gases are produced when plastics are exposed to sunlight

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 8/1/2018 Phoebe Weston
File photo of plastic bottles. Football leagues across the United Kingdom have been urged to stop using single-use plastics. © Press Association File photo of plastic bottles. Football leagues across the United Kingdom have been urged to stop using single-use plastics.

The plastic pollution plot thickens as scientists reveal that sunlight forces plastic to decompose and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Methane and ethylene are commonly created by the natural degradation of a variety of commercial plastic waste.

Polyethylene, the polymer used in carrier bags, was the worst offender and most likely to create high volumes of atmospheric pollutants, researchers found. 

a person sitting on the ground: The plastic pollution plot thickens as scientists reveal that sunlight forces the waste to decompose and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Methane and ethylene are commonly created by the natural degradation of a variety of commercial plastic waste © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited The plastic pollution plot thickens as scientists reveal that sunlight forces the waste to decompose and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Methane and ethylene are commonly created by the natural degradation of a variety of commercial plastic waste

The study, published today in PLOS ONE, focused on how plastics behave when subject to prolonged bouts of sunlight. 

The University of Hawaii researchers tested polycarbonate, acrylic, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE).  

These plastics are used in plastic pipes, food packaging, carrier bags and textiles, among others.

Polyethylene, used in shopping bags, is the most widely produced and discarded synthetic polymer globally.

a group of people on a rocky beach: Polyethylene, the polymer used in carrier bags, was the worst offender and most likely to create high volumes of the atmospheric pollutants. The US team described the discovery reported as 'unexpected' © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Polyethylene, the polymer used in carrier bags, was the worst offender and most likely to create high volumes of the atmospheric pollutants. The US team described the discovery reported as 'unexpected'

It is also the most prolific emitter of both methane and ethylene, which warm the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.  

Initiated by solar radiation, the breaking down and emission of gases continued even in the dark, researchers found.   

Study senior author Professor David Karl, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, said: 'Plastic represents a source of climate-relevant trace gases that is expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment.

'This source is not yet budgeted for when assessing global methane and ethylene cycles - and may be significant.'

a group of people lying on a sandy beach: Production of plastics - which started nearly 70 years ago - is expected to double over the next two decades. The production of greenhouse gases from plastic degradation is not yet budgeted for when assessing global methane and ethylene cycles - and may be significant' © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Production of plastics - which started nearly 70 years ago - is expected to double over the next two decades. The production of greenhouse gases from plastic degradation is not yet budgeted for when assessing global methane and ethylene cycles - and may be significant'

Production of plastics - which started nearly 70 years ago - is expected to double over the next two decades.

Their durability and low cost makes them attractive even though they are known to release a variety of chemicals during degradation - endangering organisms and ecosystems. 

The US team described the discovery as 'unexpected.'  

The researchers also found the emission rate of the gases from virgin pellets of LDPE increased during a 212-day experiment. 

Chilean engineers Roberto Astete (L) and Christian Olivares offer a press conference to present a new material that dissolves 100% upon contact with water and could be used to replace plastic bags and other plastics, in Santiago, on July 24, 2018. - After the modification of the chemical formula of PVA (polyvinyl alcohol), they managed to find a product friendly to the environment and without any oil derivative, materialized in a bag that promises to overcome plastic. This initiative was the winner of the SingularityU Chile Summit 2018 prize, as a catalyst for change, allowing an internship for inventors in Sillicon Valley. (Photo by CLAUDIO REYES / AFP)        (Photo credit should read CLAUDIO REYES/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty Chilean engineers Roberto Astete (L) and Christian Olivares offer a press conference to present a new material that dissolves 100% upon contact with water and could be used to replace plastic bags and other plastics, in Santiago, on July 24, 2018. - After the modification of the chemical formula of PVA (polyvinyl alcohol), they managed to find a product friendly to the environment and without any oil derivative, materialized in a bag that promises to overcome plastic. This initiative was the winner of the SingularityU Chile Summit 2018 prize, as a catalyst for change, allowing an internship for inventors in Sillicon Valley. (Photo by CLAUDIO REYES / AFP) (Photo credit should read CLAUDIO REYES/AFP/Getty Images)

Lead author Dr Sarah-Jeanne Royer, of the Centre for Microbial Oceanography at Hawaii University, said: '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.

'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.

Greenhouse gases directly influence climate change - affecting sea level and global temperatures along with ecosystem health on land and in the ocean.

MUMBAI, INDIA - JULY 22: A rag picker collect plastic bottles from pile of garbage that got collected at Juhu Beach on July 22, 2018 in Mumbai, India. Between July 1 and July 18, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) collected more than 2,15,000 kg of garbage from the beaches of Mumbai. During the monsoon season, the strong wind current over the sea leads to the washing ashore of accumulated garbage onto the citys coasts. (Photo by Shashi S Kashyap/Hindustan Times) © Getty MUMBAI, INDIA - JULY 22: A rag picker collect plastic bottles from pile of garbage that got collected at Juhu Beach on July 22, 2018 in Mumbai, India. Between July 1 and July 18, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) collected more than 2,15,000 kg of garbage from the beaches of Mumbai. During the monsoon season, the strong wind current over the sea leads to the washing ashore of accumulated garbage onto the citys coasts. (Photo by Shashi S Kashyap/Hindustan Times)

They also trigger storms which increase flooding, drought and erosion.

Dr Royer said: 'Considering the amounts of plastic washing ashore on our coastlines and the amount of plastic exposed to ambient conditions, our finding provides further evidence that we need to stop plastic production at the source - especially single use plastic.'

She is now working to develop estimates of the amount of plastic exposed to the environment in oceanic and terrestrial regions across the world in order to constrain the overall greenhouse gas emissions from plastics.

Plastics have a devastating impact on the planet, with them interfering with ecosystems around the world. 

This photo taken on July 21, 2018 shows an installation depicting a whale shark made of plastic bottles in Rizhao Ocean Park in Rizhao, China's eastern Shandong province. - Some 12 million tonnes of plastic, mostly in the form of single-use packaging, are dumped into the world's oceans per year creating an ecological nightmare. (Photo by - / AFP) / China OUT        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty This photo taken on July 21, 2018 shows an installation depicting a whale shark made of plastic bottles in Rizhao Ocean Park in Rizhao, China's eastern Shandong province. - Some 12 million tonnes of plastic, mostly in the form of single-use packaging, are dumped into the world's oceans per year creating an ecological nightmare. (Photo by - / AFP) / China OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

The Daily Mail led calls for a charge to reduce the numbers of plastic bags, and is campaigning for the introduction of a deposit return scheme to reduce the vast numbers of plastic bottles dumped in our rivers and seas - harming wildlife. 

Millions of tons of plastic rubbish ends up in the sea each year.

But at the moment, emissions from dumped plastic is not included in estimates of greenhouse gas emissions.

A big drop in plastic bags found in the seas around Britain has been credited to the introduction of charges for plastic bags across Europe.

Seagulls search for food near a sewage discharge area next to piles of plastic bottles and gallons washed away by the water on the seaside of Ouzai, south of Beirut on July 19, 2018. - Many Lebanese nationals are refraining from heading to the beach this summer after reports about high levels of pollution along the country's Mediterranean coast, despite reassurances from government officials that the beaches remain safe. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty Seagulls search for food near a sewage discharge area next to piles of plastic bottles and gallons washed away by the water on the seaside of Ouzai, south of Beirut on July 19, 2018. - Many Lebanese nationals are refraining from heading to the beach this summer after reports about high levels of pollution along the country's Mediterranean coast, despite reassurances from government officials that the beaches remain safe. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Ireland and Denmark were the first two countries to bring in levies for plastic bags from shops in 2003, followed by slew of other European countries. 

England was the last UK nation to introduce one, in 2015.

Earlier this year British scientists found a 30 per cent drop in plastic bags on the seabed in a large area from close to Norway and Germany to northern France and west to Ireland.

The researchers said the drop in plastic bag pollution measured from 2010 – about the mid-point of charging policies coming into force – showed the power of such levies. 

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