Plastics will outpace coal plants in the U.S. by 2030 in terms of their contributions to climate change, according to a report released Oct. 21 by Beyond Plastics, a project at Bennington College in Vermont. Yet policymakers and businesses are not currently accounting for the plastics industry’s full impact on climate change, allowing the industry to essentially fly "under the radar, with little public scrutiny and even less government accountability," the report says.
Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and a former regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says the report was intentionally released in the lead-up to the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, when world leaders will gather to discuss strategies for tackling climate change. "There's a little discussion on waste, but not much," Enck said in a video interview. "But plastics' contribution to climate change is not on the agenda."
The report, "New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change," draws on public and private data sources to analyze 10 stages of plastic production in the U.S., including gas acquisition, transportation, manufacturing and disposal. It found that the U.S. plastics industry alone is presently responsible for at least 255 million tons (232 million metric tons) of greenhouse gases every year, the equivalent of about 116.5 gigawatts in coal plants. But this number is expected to rise as dozens of plastics facilities are currently under construction across the country, mainly in Texas and Louisiana, according to the report.
"What's quietly been happening under the radar is the petrochemical industry — the fossil fuel industry — has been ramping up investment in the production of plastics," Enck said. "Unless you live in the communities where this is taking place, people just don't know this."
Fracking for Plastic
While there has been widespread media coverage on plastic waste and microplastics, less attention has been paid to the environmental impacts of plastic production. To create plastic food packaging and drink bottles that have become ubiquitous with daily life, gases need to be fracked from the ground, transported and processed industrially. Each step contributes millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions — particularly methane — which is considered to be 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Shale fracking has been the method of choice for acquiring gases such as ethane and methane required for plastic production. But fracking can release harmful amounts of methane into the atmosphere, as well as contaminate the surface and groundwater and even trigger earthquakes, the report says.
It's estimated that fracking in the U.S. releases about 36 million tons (32 million metric tons) of (CO2e) per year, or the same volume as 18 average-sized (500-megawatt) coal-fired power plants in 2020, according to the report. These numbers are expected to rise as the demand for plastic grows and fracking operations expand.
One of the most polluting stages of plastic production is the process of "cracking" ethane. At large industrial complexes called "cracker plants," fracked gases are superheated until the molecules "crack" into new compounds such as ethylene, which is the foundation for polyethylene, one of the most common plastics in the world. Polyethylene is used to make anything from single-use food packaging to grocery bags to children's toys.
According to the report, facilities with ethane cracker plants released 70 million tons (63.5 million metric tons) of CO2e in 2020, which is roughly what 35 average-sized coal-fired power plants released. Expansion of this sector is anticipated to add another 42 million tons (38 million metric tons) of greenhouse gases per year by 2025.
The report also highlights the process of "chemical recycling," which would turn plastics into fuel but leave a heavy carbon footprint. While very little chemical recycling currently takes place, the expansion of the industry could add up to 18 million tons (16.3 million metric tons) of greenhouse gases each year, according to the report.
Enck says the numbers presented in the report are actually "very conservative," so the amount of greenhouse gas emissions is likely to be an underestimate.
"There's also a lot of emissions that are not tracked," she said. "For instance, there's lots of burning that happens at cement kilns. The U.S. EPA has no idea what the emissions from [those are]."
Another key finding is that the plastics industry releases about 90 percent of its reported climate pollution from plants situated near low-income communities mostly inhabited by people of color in states like Texas and Louisiana.
"This very much makes plastic production and disposal an environmental justice or an equity issue," Enck said.
Plastic Is the New Coal
In 2019, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) released a similar report, "Plastic and Climate Change: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet," on the plastics industry's carbon footprint, although it took an international perspective on the issue. Using conservative calculations, it found that by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics could exceed 56 gigatons, which would be 10 to 13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.
Steven Feit, a senior attorney at CIEL and co-author of "Plastics and Climate Change," said the new report from Beyond Plastics provides a "near-comprehensive profile" of current greenhouse gas emissions from plastics and the expected rise in emissions from planned expansions of facilities in the U.S. over the next several years. He added the report highlights parts of the plastics industry that the CIEL report did not, including the carbon footprint of insulating foams, additives, feedstock manufacturing and chemical recycling.
"This timely report is an important contribution that further articulates the profound climate impacts of the plastics industry," Feit said in an email. "By identifying 10 distinct but interconnected sources of greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle, The New Coal demonstrates the inextricable link between plastic and the climate crisis and demonstrates why proposed solutions that only address one piece of the plastics puzzle are insufficient."
Climate change is considered to be one of nine planetary boundaries that helps sustain life on Earth. Its boundary is set at 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, although this was already surpassed in 1988, pushing the Earth into a new state typified by higher global temperatures and extreme weather events. If greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed, global temperatures could increase by 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels in as early as 43 years, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) sixth assessment report.
Bloomberg Philanthropies and Beyond Coal say that more than 65 percent of U.S. coal plants were retired by 2020. While this is a remarkable feat, Enck said the work being done to shut down these plants could be canceled out by the emissions from plastics — unless plastics are curtailed.
"Plastic is the new coal," Enck said. "We've got to reduce the use of plastic if we have any chance of hitting climate change goals."