Plastic bottles processing

Plastic industry’s contribution to climate change to outpace coal by 2030

Image credit: Ecoalf

Plastics are on track to contribute more climate change emissions than coal plants by 2030, according to a new report.

In a collaboration between Bennington College and Beyond Plastics, the report found that as fossil fuel companies seek to recoup falling profits, they are increasing plastics production, cancelling out the greenhouse gas reductions gained from closures of coal-fired power plants in the US.

The report analysed data of ten stages of plastics production, usage and disposal and found that the US plastics industry is releasing 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 and construction is currently underway on another 12 plastics facilities with an additional 15 in the planning stages.

“The fossil fuel industry is losing money from its traditional markets of power generation and transportation. They are building new plastics facilities at a staggering clip so they can dump their petrochemicals into plastics. This petrochemical buildout is cancelling out other global efforts to slow climate change,” said Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics.

The report also found that the pollution from the sector disproportionately impacted less well-off communities; 90 per cent of the pollution emitted by the sector occurs in just 18 communities where residents earn 28 per cent less than the average US household and are 67 per cent more likely to be people of colour.

“This report represents the floor, not the ceiling, of the US plastics industry’s climate impact,” said the report’s author Jim Vallette.

“Federal agencies do not yet count many releases because current regulations do not require the industry to report them. For example, no agency tracks how much greenhouse gas is released when plastic trash is burned in cement kilns, nor when methane leaks from a gas processing plant, nor when fracked gas is exported from Texas to make single-use plastics in India.”

With the United Nations preparing to meet for COP26 in Glasgow shortly, a failure to acknowledge and act to reduce plastics’ contribution to climate change threatens to undermine global climate change mitigation efforts, the report said.

“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,” Enck added.

Earlier this month, researchers presented a sustainable model for plastics production and waste treatment which could achieve plastic production with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions at a much more feasible price point than expected.

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