Plastics are everywhereFrom the stomachs of deep-sea fish to human feces, Arctic snow to gusts of wind in the remote wilderness, the oil and gas byproduct has, barely a century after it was first synthesized in a laboratory, become a ubiquitous feature of virtually every ecosystem on Earth and every aspect of modern life.
It’s also playing a key role in permanently changing the climate of the planet it has comeTo dominate.
Plastics already produce 3.8 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions throughout their lifecycle? roughly double the planet-heating pollution spewed by airplanes. By the end of this decade, the plastics industry in the United States alone is on paceTo eclipse the carbon footprint of the country’s remaining coal-fired power plants, according to a new analysis from Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics think tank.
New data on the 10 stages in plastic production, use, and disposal shows that the U.S. plastics sector releases at least 232,000,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually, which is equivalent to 116 average-sized coal fired power plants.
Roughly 65 percent of the country’s active coal-fired plants retired over the past decade, yet the stupendous growth of the U.S. plastics industry threatens to offset whatever climate progress the world’s largest historical emitter has made at a moment when the nation is struggling to codify its transition from fossil fuels into law.
While emissions from power plants, transportation, and industry are expected to take center stage at next month’s United Nations climate summit in Scotland, plastics are virtually absent from the global climate agenda. And despite attention paid to the crisis of plastic trash piling up on buildings and killing aquatic wildlife, the Biden administration’s proposal to decarbonize the U.S. economy similarly overlooks the industry’s carbon footprint.
“When most people think of the plastic problem, they think of water pollution and the fact that plastic recycling has been such a failure. They don’t think about climate change,” said Judith Enck, the president of Beyond Plastics who previously spent eight years as a regional administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency. “But this is a significant and growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.”
The industry and its emissions have increased rapidly across the country, especially in states where hydraulic drilling, or fracking has made fossil fuel raw materials cheap and readily available. In 2020, plastics emissions increased by 10 million tons compared to the previous year, even as the world’s output of climate-changing gases overall temporarily decreased as the pandemic lockdowns idled cars and factories.
Other 12 plastics facilities are under construction. Another 15 are in the making. This will add another 40 million tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution annually by 2025.
These plants emit heat-trapping carbon, but that is not the only pollutant. Air pollution near cracker plants ― the type of facility where gas is heated to a high enough temperature to break the fuels into smaller molecules, a main feedstock, or baseline ingredient, for plastics ― contains more than 100 chemicals including cancer-causing benzene, toluene and xylene. Communities in which these facilities are built experience such disproportionate rates of lung cancer, asthma and organ diseases that Louisiana’s infamously dense petrochemical corridor is known internationally as “Cancer Alley.”
The report found that more than 90 percent of carbon emissions from the plastics industry are polluting just 18 communities. This is mainly along the coasts in Louisiana and Texas. Residents living in these areas are more likely to live in poverty and to be non-white. According to the report, residents living within three miles from these petrochemical clusters earn 28 % less than the average U.S. household. They are also 67 percent more likely be people of color.
Beyond Plastics enlisted Maine-based environmental research company Material Research to conduct the research. Material Research collects public emissions data that plastics companies submit the EPA, Department of Commerce, and Department of Energy. According to industry data, there were 114 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2020.
But that offered only a narrow view of plastics’ carbon footprint. After analyzing the regulatory data, researchers calculated the emissions from plastic exports and imports as well as pipelines carrying the feedstock oils. This allowed them to identify another 118 million tons in greenhouse gas pollution, just last year.
In reality, this number is likely higher. This does not include the gases released by plastic waste from the ocean. Sarah-Jeanne Royer, a research scientist at Hawai’i Pacific University’s Center for Marine Debris Research who has studied emissions from plastics, said public understanding of how quickly plastics deteriorate and emit gases has not yet caught up to recent findings.
“Whether it’s plastic pollution or plastic that is basically in use, it will be producing different types of greenhouse gases,” said Royer, who was not involved in the report but reviewed its findings for HuffPost. “We very often think about emissions from the production process or maybe from the end-of-life recycling facilities. But we don’t yet have a number for the total amount for when plastic is exposed in the environment.”
She said that plastic waste, whether it is in landfills or oceans, expands the surface area and causes an increase in emissions. “If anything,” she said of the Beyond Plastics report, “this is an underestimate.”
Chemical recycling is one of the most worrying trends that the report highlights. Sometimes called “advanced recycling,” the process involves melting solid plastics down in high-heat furnaces. The resulting liquid feedstocks―rather than becoming new plastics, as the term “recycling” implies―are, in many cases, sold as fuel oil.
A Reuters investigation in July revealed that the chemical recycling sector is still developing, and is littered with failures. Sixteen of the 35 chemical-recycling projects the EPA inspected in December were either commercial or demonstration scale. Several ended in lawsuits or settlements for unpaid service, and two resulted with chief executives facing fraud judgments totaling multi-millions of dollars.
States across the country are still enacting legislation that will encourage the industry, exempting chemical recycling plants form local environmental regulations. If all the country’s proposed chemical recyclers are built, the plants and the burning of their resulting fuel could emit another 18 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, the Beyond Plastics report found.
“I am not surprised by the main conclusions,” said Sangwon Suh, an industrial ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, who was not involved in the report but reviewed an advanced copy for HuffPost. “Plastics produce a massive amount of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the life cycle, while they are barely noticed by the public as their emissions tend to be hidden behind the supply chain.”
He also warned that coal emits more carbon during its lifecycle than most figures that show the pollution it creates when burned. But unlike coal, which scientists say needs to be phased out in the next decade or so to keep global warming from reaching catastrophic levels, “net-zero greenhouse gas emission plastics is possible at a global scale” if producers actually recycle material, use plant matter as a feedstock, and equip facilities with carbon capture technology, Suh said, pointing to a study he co-authored and published in the journal Science this month.
The plastics industry’s waste and climate impact are hardly the only social problems that should invite government scrutiny. According to a report by a, plastic prices are rising. Polypropylene, which is a key ingredient in most plastics has seen its price rise 135 percent since 2021. separate report published this week by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. The analysis concluded that pricing oversight is needed for the industries that produce the most feedstocks, especially the oil and gas giants who have increasingly relied upon their plastics divisions in order to offset declining profits from drilling.
“As countries finally begin to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels for power and transportation, the demand for fossil fuels is falling. In desperation, the fossil fuel industry is looking to plastics as a replacement market, as this report details,” Enck wrote in the introduction to the report. “Plastics is the fossil fuel industry’s Plan B. But there is no Plan B for the rest of us.”