Climate Change and The Plastics Industry

Molly Teece, UMass Lowell

One of the most pressing issues of today is the impact that climate change will have on our daily lives if we don’t drastically reduce our carbon emissions in the coming years. The largest contributor to carbon emissions is the fossil fuel industry, which is intimately linked to the growing plastics industry. Plastics Engineering, a profession in the plastics industry, involves the processing, design, development, manufacturing, and application of polymeric materials in engineering settings [1]. As an emerging Plastics Engineer, the predictions I hear about our Earth are deeply troubling, and I frequently wonder whether I am pursuing a sustainable, ethical profession. 

The specific ways in which humans contribute to climate change were first theorized back in 1896 when Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius and American geologist Thomas Chamberlain calculated that human activities could increase the Earth’s temperature by contributing to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere [2]. Nearly a century later, particularly in the 1960s, it became increasingly clear not only how human activity contributes to climate change [3], but how those changes will ultimately alter the way we function in our changing world.

To explore how the issue of climate change is linked to my future in the plastics profession, I interviewed my father, Paul Teece, the Finance Director for Fiber Optic Materials and SLA / 3D resins for a company closely tied to the plastics industry. Paul is the Finance Business Partner for DSM Functional Materials, a “global supplier of innovative high-quality resins solutions for paints and coatings, fiber optic coatings and 3D printing” [4]. I asked Paul the following three questions:

  • How will climate/environmental changes affect your field?

  • How does the plastics industry affect the climate/environment?

  • How is your field adapting, either through training or the priorities of the profession?

How will climate/environmental changes affect your field

At the root of this question is a core value of Paul’s. He believes that ultimately, “you can’t be successful as a company in a world that fails” [5]. A failing world cannot breed a successful industry. As a result of climate change, the immediate effects on the plastics industry would include raw material scarcity, an increase in available material costs and an increase in the cost of energy, which would result in more expensive processing [5]. Countries such as China take a stronger stance against pollution through initiatives such as the Action Blue Sky Campaign, where they are willing to sacrifice industry and disrupt the supply chain by shutting down factories with the intention of reducing air pollution [5].

There are other threats to supply chain distribution, such as disruptions due to the increasing occurrence of “highly destructive” storms such as hurricanes, which are exacerbated by global warming [6]. These destructive storm occurrences force plastics manufacturers to reconsider their plant site locations, since they cannot be located near bodies of water, where storms are more frequent. There is also a concern for rising sea levels with site proximity to the ocean [5].

Paul also believes that the growing cultural and political rejection of single-use plastics, such as individual consumer awareness and legislature that bans single-use plastic straws and bags, will harm the single-use plastics industry due to a decrease in demand [5]. However, for sectors of the packaging industry that offer sustainable and biodegradable options, the outlook is more positive [5]. Any sector that uses plastics applications as a force for good will benefit from this cultural shift. The cultural shift due to climate change also occurs within companies and is reflected in their initiatives and corporate values.

“Just like nuclear power, which can be used to either build bombs or provide clean energy, you can either make plastic junk that will sit in landfills, or build a smarter car with lighter weight parts that reduces carbon footprint through gas consumption. It’s all about how you choose to apply plastics. They can certainly be used as a force for good.”

How does the plastics industry affect the climate/environment?


The largest contributor to climate change due to the plastics industry is the mass production and consumption of plastics, which includes not only single-use plastics but also products such as commercially used fishing nets. The issue with these plastics is that “plastic manufacturing is estimated to use 8 percent of yearly global oil production, [and] the EPA estimates as many as five ounces of carbon dioxide are emitted for each ounce of polyethylene [terephthalate] (PET) produced—the type of plastic most commonly used for beverage bottles” [9]. The production of plastics isn’t the only part of the industry that is a contributor to climate change. Sun exposure to common plastics is also a contributor to the greenhouse gases in our Earth’s atmosphere.

Single-use plastics are thrown into landfills while fishing nets are the largest contributor by mass to another global issue related to climate change, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which harms both humans and wildlife [7]. The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit organization, actually uses DSM’s product, Dyneema®, a marine towing rope made out of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), for their cleanup project [8].

Plastics make up 17.3% of landfill composition [10], mainly composed of plastics that don’t biodegrade, such as diapers and carpets, which contain mainly sodium polyacrylate and PET, respectively. Of the plastics produced since the 1950s, it is estimated that only 9% has been recycled [11]. This is important to note because a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Hawaii found that the seven most common plastics release greenhouse gases methane and ethylene when exposed to the elements [12]. Both PET and acrylic polymers were shown to release notable amounts of these gases when placed under solar radiation exposure and ultraviolet radiation, in which solar exposure radiation was shown to initiate the release of the gases [13].

Additionally, low-density polyethylene (LDPE: grocery bags) was shown to release the most methane and ethylene. This is critical because it is “one of the most commonly produced, consumed, and discarded types of plastic, and also one of the lightest, shown to float at the surface of the ocean” where it is exposed to more solar radiation [13].

If you aren’t a plastics engineer, you may have already asked yourself why we don’t just switch entirely to biodegradable plastics. The crux of the issue with plastics contributing to climate change is that the most common biodegradable and sustainably-sourced polymers (e.g. poly(lactic acid) or PLA), have poor heat resistance properties, are more brittle, and more expensive than other petroleum-sourced polymers. Although PLA is a popular choice for biodegradable cold drink cups, it performs poorly in engineering applications, where more is demanded of the polymer [14].

How is your field adapting, either through training or the priorities of the profession?

“We see climate change as an opportunity. We take it as a challenge to be eco-plus,” says Paul. “The products [DSM] make have to contribute to the world in a positive way,” which would mean helping to reverse climate change, rather than contributing to it [5]. Many companies in the plastics industry have carbon emission targets that are in line with the Paris Accord, and even some American companies are creating similar carbon emission goals, despite the United States withdrawing from the Paris Accord agreement [15].

Another way that companies in the industry such as DSM are adapting is by monitoring what percent of their products are considered “environmentally friendly,” meaning better biodegradability, recyclability, and less or no CMRs (carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic) than alternatives, and making goals to increase that percentage. Paul also shared that DSM encourages their employees to live sustainably in their personal lives by celebrating Earth Day company-wide, where employees announce their personal sustainability commitments [5]. DSM also asked their employees to submit these personal commitments, which DSM mailed back to employees later in time to remind them to stay on track. “They even used envelopes made of paper with seeds in it,” Paul noted [5].

When asked about the outlook of the industry with regards to climate change, Paul remarks, “there will be losers. For companies that don’t adapt accordingly, the outlook is not good” [5]. Paul believes that plastics technology will continue to play a role in society, despite climate change. “Plastics aren’t going away,” he says. “I think the problems can be solved, but [the world is] too slow” [5].

“Will the industry look the same tomorrow as today? I hope not. I hope it changes.”

In conclusion, although the plastics industry and climate change currently go hand in hand, it is clear that they don’t have to. One of the largest contributors to the issue of climate change can also be a large component in reversing the damage it has done. For this reason, it is certainly possible to be both a Plastics Engineer and an environmentalist. Plastics Engineering can be considered an ethical profession if expertise is applied in an ethical way. For example, it is one of the most crucial professions in combating climate change. Without a highly educated workforce in the plastics field, we would not be able to tackle the issues that climate change present today. Ultimately, if we want to use plastics as a force for good, then we need to have solution-oriented, environmentally-aware professionals in the plastics industry.


  1. What is Plastics Engineering? Plastic Engineering. 2018. <source>

  2. Maslin, M. Global Warming, a Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. Oxford 2004

  3. Taking a Global Perspective on Earth’s Climate. National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA). Shaftel, Holly. 15 November 2018. <source>

  4. DSM Resins & Functional Materials. DSM. Copyright Koninklijke DSM N.V. 2011. <source>

  5. Teece, Paul. Personal Interview. 28 November 2018. 

  6. Trenberth, K. E., Cheng, L., Jacobs, P., Zhang, Y., & Fasullo, J. (2018). Hurricane Harvey links to Ocean Heat Content and Climate Change Adaptation. Earth's Future, 6, 730–744. <source>

  7. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Ocean Cleanup. 2018. <source>

  8. Contributing to the Largest Cleanup in History. DSM. Copyright Koninklijke DSM N.V. 2011. 03 September 2018. <source>

  9. Glazner, Elizabeth. Plastic Pollution and Climate Change. Plastic Pollution Coalition. 10 December 2015. <source>

  10. Municipal Solid Waste Landfills. US Environmental Protection Agency. June 2014. <source>

  11. Parker, Laura. A Whopping 91% of Plastic Isn’t Recycled. National Geographic. 19 July 2017. <source>

  12. Waters, Shannon. New Study Shows Plastics Release Greenhouse Gases, Contributing to Climate Change. Surfrider Foundation. 10 August 2018. <source>

  13. Royer S-J, Ferrón S, Wilson ST, Karl DM (2018). Production of Methane and Ethylene from Plastic in the Environment. PLOS ONE. 01 August 2018. <source>

  14. Farah, Shady, et al. Physical and Mechanical Properties of PLA, and Their Functions in Widespread Applications — A Comprehensive Review. Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, vol. 107, Dec. 2016, pp. 367–92. <source>

  15. Tabuchi, Hiroko and Henry Fountain. Bucking Trump, These Cities, States and Companies Commit to Paris Accord. The New York Times Company. 02 June 2017. <source

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