Report: Plastic May Soon Overtake Coal as a Climate Killer

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Everyone clued-in enough to understand the urgency of the climate crisis probably knows that the ocean has become a dumping zone for plastic and that single-use plastic bottles and bags are choking the planet.

But as far as I can tell, they rarely talk about it. Plastic people and climate people have largely been in separate worlds and on separate missions. Climate people talk about the problems with carbon offsets and the impact of high natural gas prices on coal consumption. Plastic people talk about the myth of recycling and what happens to sea turtles when they eat plastic bags. But they rarely talk to each other.

A new report from Beyond Plastics, an initiative at Bennington College to reduce plastic pollution, may change that. “We see the world going to the COP [UN climate conference] in Glasgow, and we see Congress debating climate policy,” says Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator who is now president of Beyond Plastics. “Our goal with this report is to get plastics into that discussion – where it belongs.”

It may work. The report is the first to look at the full climate impacts of plastic, analyzing publicly available data of 10 stages of plastics production, usage, and disposal. The results are startling. Among the findings:

  • The U.S. plastics industry releases at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.
  • In 2020, the plastics industry’s reported emissions increased by 10 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 2019. Construction is currently underway in the U.S. on another 12 plastics facilities, and 15 more are planned. Altogether these expansions may emit more than 40 million more tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2025.
  • Plastics are on track to contribute more climate change emissions than coal plants by 2030.

Plastics are brewed with fossil fuels. The most sought-after feedstock is natural gas, the molecules of which are split apart in huge plants called “crackers” and reassembled to make everything from the keyboard I’m typing on to the 100-foot-high mountain of plastic bottles I once saw on the beach in Lagos, Nigeria. Oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil have a huge presence in the plastics business — and it’s getting bigger.

In Enck’s view, expanding into plastics is the plan B for a fossil fuel industry that sees its future being squeezed by a shift to cleaner, cheaper forms of energy and an increasingly broad social mandate to reduce carbon pollution. “They are losing money on power, on electrification, on the rise of electric cars,” says Enck. “So under the radar, they are investing billions in a petrochemical build-out that few people know about, except impacted communities.”

As the report underscores, the health impacts of emissions from the plastics industry hit hardest in low income neighborhoods and among people of color — 90 percent of reported climate pollution is in 18 communities, mostly along the coast of Louisiana and Texas. People living within three miles of these petrochemical clusters earn 28 percent less than the average American household and are 67 percent more likely to be people of color.

Beyond climate, the fight for clean air and water in these communities is a David vs. Goliath battle. In Corpus Christi, Rolling Stone reported how residents are trying to stop a new Exxon plastics plant by cutting off its water supply. To get a sense of how people in these communities feel about living in a petrochemical abyss, take a few minutes to watch this video of Yvette Arellano, the founder of Fenceline Watch, an environmental justice group fighting toxic pollution in Texas.

But the impacts of plastic waste are global.  As Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson pointed out in “Plastic Planet,” his epic investigation into how plastic has infiltrated modern life, every human on Earth is ingesting nearly 2,000 particles of plastic a week. “We are beyond the crisis point on plastic waste,” former New Mexico Senator Tom Udall told Dickinson.

The Beyond Plastics report also blows up industry claims about recycling. Regular recycling has in fact stagnated at less than 9 percent. Now the plastics industry is touting “chemical recycling,” a term used to describe the processing of plastic waste into fuel. There are only a few chemical recycling plants in operation now, but by 2025, new capacity may cause the release of 18 million tons of greenhouse gases each year — equivalent to nine coal-fired power plants.

Enck predicts the petrochemical industry will challenge the numbers in this report and claim that because plastic is lighter than other materials it is lighter to ship and therefore climate friendly. “It’s what they always say, and it’s wrong,” says Enck, who had plenty of experience dealing with fossil fuel industry PR wizards during her time at EPA.

“The good news,” Enck says, “is that there are lots of alternatives to plastic.” She points out how people in the state of New York once used 23 billion single use plastic bags a year. Now, thanks to a ban on single use bags, they are on a steep decline. Pepsi acquired SodaStream, a sparkling water-maker that allows people to make their own Pepsi at home, reducing the need for millions of single-use plastic bottles. “This is a revolution that is coming from the bottom up,” says Enck. “People see what plastic is doing to the world, and they want to change that.”

With this report, people can now also see what plastic is doing to the climate. “Plastics is the fossil fuel industry’s Plan B,” Enck writes in the introduction to the report. “But there is no Plan B for the rest of us.”