“If plastic were a country, it would be the world’s fifth largest greenhouse emitter, beating out all but China, the U.S., India and Russia,” writes Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics in an October press release. The plastics industry is currently on track to release more GHGs than coal plants in the U.S. by 2030 according to the The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change report. Plastic is fast becoming the new coal.
Plastic is the New Coal
“The scale of the plastics industry’s greenhouse gas emissions is staggering, but it’s equally concerning that few people in government or in the business community are even talking about it. That must change quickly if we hope to remain within the 1.5°C global temperature increase scientists have pinpointed as critical to avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change.” — Judith Enck
Summary of report findings:
- Plastics manufacturing is currently a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
- The petrochemical industry’s plastics infrastructure is expanding, and emissions are slated to increase dramatically.
- The health impacts of emissions released by the plastics industry are disproportionately felt by low-income communities and people of color.
- “Chemical recycling” shares more in common with incinerating than recycling waste.
- Much of the ongoing buildout is export-oriented.
- The U.S. plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of CO2e gas emissions per year.
- Reports generated by the plastics industry are incomplete, and conssequently understate the quantities of gases, especially methane gas, it releases.
(For a more detailed summary of the findings, click here.)
- Hydrofracking of plastics feedstock releases methane, a powerful climate change pollutant. By 2025, methane releases could reach 45 million tons each year, which is more GHG than was released by 22 average coal-fired power plants in 2020. By 2025, more than 9.5 million carbon dioxide equivalent tons of methane could be released in this stage, equivalent to emissions from about five coal-fired power plants.
- Transporting and Processing Fracked Gases emits an estimated 4.8 million tons of methane each year, and planned expansion would add 4.7 million tons of GHG each year.
- Ethane Gas Cracker Facilities release at least 70 million tons of GHG each year…New and expanded capacity at more than a dozen existing plants could add an additional 40 million tons of GHG per year – equivalent to 20 coal-fired power plants.
- Other Plastics Feedstock Manufacturing emits 28 million tons of GHG each year – equivalent to 14 coal-fired power plants. Planned expansion would add 10 million additional tons of GHG each year – equivalent to five coal-fired power plants by 2025.
- Polymers and Additives Production emits at least 14 million tons of GHG each year – equivalent to seven coal-fired power plants.
- Exports and Imports of plastics feedstocks and resins and products emit at least 51 million tons of GHG each year – equivalent to more than 25 coal-fired power plants. More than 41% of plastic resins made in North America are exported, and countries including India and China are building new crackers to make plastics from feedstocks extracted in the U.S.
- Foamed Plastic Insulation emits more than 27 million tons of extremely potent greenhouse gases used as blowing agents each year – equivalent to at least 13 coal-fired power plants.
- “Chemical Recycling,” a term used by the plastics industry to describe the processing of plastic waste into fuel, has barely begun, but by 2025, new capacity may cause the release of 18 million tons of GHG each year – equivalent to nine coal-fired power plants.
- Municipal Waste Incineration of plastic waste emits at least 15 million tons of GHG each year – equivalent to at least seven coal-fired power plants.
- Plastics in the Water degrade into GHGs. These releases are not yet fully understood nor are they tracked.
Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing issues of our time. “Big Oil” is doubling down on plastic production as the world begins to shift to a low-carbon future. “By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. It’s an environmental crisis that’s been in the making for nearly 70 years. Plastic pollution is now considered one of the largest environmental threats facing humans and animals globally.” — The Plastic Problem, PBS News Hour Documentary.
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