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Plastics are a huge part of our everyday life, and most people know that plastics contribute to litter, but did you know that plastics also add to climate change? Host Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy, Judith Kelley discusses this issue and potential policy solutions with Duke Ph.D. candidate Zoie Diana. 

Guest: Zoie Diana, Ph.D. candidate in Marine Science & Conservation at Duke University, speaks about her research of the harmful effects of plastics and the connections to public policy.

This is the fourth in a series of conversations about climate change.

Plastics: The Climate Connection and Policy Possibilities

Policy 360 Podcast

Conversation Highlights

Responses have been edited for clarity.

On Plastics and Fossil Fuels

I think it's not super commonly known that plastics are derived from fossil fuels. Over 99% of plastics are from fossil fuels. You might hear mutterings about bio-based plastics, which would be different, but that's just a small, small sliver of the plastic that you see in your everyday lives. 

In the plastic creation process you have most of the greenhouse gas emissions. But even if you're transporting raw materials, there's greenhouse gas emissions associated with it. Even plastic, when it's waste, if it's litter or mismanaged waste or at illegal dumpsites, plastic emits methane when it's exposed to sunlight. So even if it's just sitting there in the environment, there are still issues.

So, at every stage of the lifecycle, plastic can make greenhouse gas emissions.

On sustainability goals of Fortune Global 500 companies

So, we set out to ask, are the world's largest companies  (the top 300 on the Fortune Global 500), are they making commitments to reduce plastic pollution in their publicly available reports? So, their sustainability reports, their annual reports and if they are making commitments, what do these commitments look like? What sort of actions are they committing to take? And what sorts of plastic types are they targeting?

We found that 72% of the world's largest companies made at least one commitment to reduce plastic pollution. But these commitments really range. So, it could be as little as one line of text or many, many pages that we were reading.

What we were seeing was a lot of targeting just general plastics. They weren't exactly disclosing what the specific plastic type that they were targeting was. And then the actions that we often saw was a heavy emphasis on recycling. (I think recycling is really valuable, it's really important, but it has only been shown to work up to a point.)

Globally, only between about nine and 10% of plastic has been actually recycled over the last 50 years. Maybe in 50 years when we redo this study, there'll be greater recycling rates, and I can be more optimistic when I see companies committing to recycling. But it could also be, on the other hand, pushing that burden of dealing with this plastic waste to consumers who often are the ones actually putting plastic in the recycling bin.

On public policies to cut down on plastic production

I worked with researchers at the Nicolas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions (now the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability) at Duke, and we did a survey of how governments over the last about 20 years are responding to plastic pollution and I'm happy. We have seen there's an increasing number of policies adopted annually specifically aimed to reduce plastic pollution. So that is what makes me hopeful.

[Also], I must differentiate between all the plastic out there. There's medical waste plastics ... we don't have a replacement for [that]. They're necessary to keep people safe. So those I'm not talking about those. [But there is a lot of] plastic that I don't think we need, unnecessary plastics. Like, maybe you order something online and it comes surprisingly in a plastic bag. So those unnecessary plastics are ones that I really would love to see us start to phase out.


About Policy 360

Policy 360 is a series of policy-focused conversations hosted by Judith Kelley, Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. New episodes premiere bi-weekly. Guests have included luminaries like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former director of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim, as well as researchers from Duke University and other institutions. Conversations are timely and relevant.

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