Plastics industry pollution to overtake US coal by 2030, report says
Plastic pollution typically conjures up images of grocery bags blowing in the wind or nurdles lodged in a seabird’s stomach. But soon, plastic pollution could take on another meaning, as a new report predicts that Greenhouse gas emissions from industry in the United States will exceed those from coal by the end of the decade.
“Unlike the plastic waste that chokes our waterways and litter our communities, the plastics industry’s devastating impact on our climate is unfolding under the radar, with little public control and even less government accountability,” Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator, said in the report.
Plastic is an important but often overlooked source of carbon pollution. Production in the United States creates at least 232 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases, according to the report from Bennington College and the nonprofit Beyond Plastics. Plastics production is expected to emit an additional 55 million tonnes by 2025 if the 42 factories currently planned or under construction are put into operation.
Last year, coal-fired power in the United States produced 786 million tonnes of CO2, an amount that is expected to decline as coal-fired power plants are supplanted by natural gas, solar and wind power. Between 2019 and 2020, carbon pollution attributed to coal fell by 166 million tonnes. As coal continues to decline and plastic increases, it is inevitable that the two lines will intersect.
Today, carbon pollution from other sectors of the economy exceeds that from plastics. But as other sectors go carbon-free, continued growth in industry emissions is undermining President Joe Biden’s goal of achieving net zero carbon pollution by 2050.
A myriad of sources
A significant portion of carbon pollution from plastics comes from fracking and the transport of gases used in production. One of them is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that heats the atmosphere 86 times more than the same amount of CO.2 over 20 years. Leaks at wellheads and along pipelines create 36 million tonnes of carbon pollution, according to the report. Other parts of natural gas, like ethane, are used as raw materials, and their cracking creates an additional 70 million tonnes. Other plastic raw materials like coal and ammonia produce an additional 28 million tonnes.
Pollution continues as plastics reach the end of their life. The burning of plastic waste is responsible for 15 million tonnes of carbon pollution. Even so-called “chemical recycling,” which typically uses high heat to melt plastics into parts, could add an additional 18 million tonnes by 2025, according to the report.
The Plastics Industry Association said the report ignored some benefits of plastics that could offset some of the pollution from production. “Plastic is lighter and more durable than alternatives and reduces the overall weight of the products. Lighter products require less fuel for transportation, ”a spokesperson told E&E News. “If plastic packaging were replaced with other materials, waste and energy consumption would double, and weight and costs would quadruple,” the spokesperson said. The American Chemistry Council, a trade association for American chemical companies, says alternatives to plastic packaging would have a 2.7 times larger carbon footprint.
The new report’s findings dovetail with a previous effort by the Center for International Environmental Law, which found that by 2050, carbon pollution from plastics could exceed 2.5 billion metric tonnes globally, more than double today.
Plastics production facilities also tend to be concentrated near communities that disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution. “More than 90% of the climate pollution reported by the plastics industry to the EPA occurs in 18 communities, primarily along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana,” note the authors of the new report. “People living within 3 miles of these petrochemical clusters earn 28% less than the average American household and are 67% more likely to be people of color.”