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How does plastic affect the carbon cycle?

Posted on November 09 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

Research into plastic debris in the ocean is still in very early stages, so we don't have an answer to this question yet.  Most plastics are organic polymers, which means that they are composed of very long chains of carbon atoms.  Thus, with the introduction of plastic into the ocean comes the addition of carbon, but it is bound into very large molecules.  It remains to be seen whether or not marine microbes are able to release the carbon in these materials into the ocean.

In a broader sense, most traditional plastics are made from petroleum-derived chemicals, and all plastics require energy, typically generated by fossil fuel burning, to be manufactured.  Thus, plastics manufacturing removes carbon that has been locked in fossil fuels and does two things:  1- transforms it into materials used in our everyday products, and 2- releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as a result of energy use.

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