plastic pollution

Climate pollution from plastics to outpace coal emissions in US by 2030, report finds

The petrochemical industry has found a new market for fossil fuels: plastics."

With dozens of new plastics manufacturing and recycling facilities in the works, the U.S. plastics industry will release more greenhouse gas emissions than coal-fired power plants by 2030, say the authors of a new report.


Emissions from the plastics sector equaled that of 116 coal-fired power plants last year, according to the report out Thursday from Bennington College's Beyond Plastics project. Meanwhile, 42 plastics manufacturing and recycling facilities have opened, or are in the process of being built or permitted, since 2019.

“As the world transitions away from fossil fuels for electricity generation and for transportation, the petrochemical industry has found a new market for fossil fuels: plastics," Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, told reporters on Thursday.

With the U.S. coal industry in decline, the report authors say policymakers at home and at the upcoming COP26 climate summit, a conference happening at the end of month where world leaders will hash out the details of climate pledges, need to factor the climate toll of plastics into emissions reductions efforts.

“Leaving out plastics is leaving out a giant piece of the problem," Enck said. “We would like the national leaders that are gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, to take the plastics issue just as seriously as they are taking transportation and electricity generation."

Climate costs of U.S. plastics

The report authors calculated emissions from 10 stages of plastics production, from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for the raw material—ethane in natural gas—all the way up to burning waste in incinerators.

Cracker plants, where natural gas is heated at such high temperatures that it fractures into plastic building blocks like ethylene, have the heaviest emissions toll, producing around 70 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent pollutants, which is equal to the emissions of 35 coal-fired power plants. Because the report looks at emissions from a range of greenhouse gases, the authors converted the warming potential of all the pollutants into an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas.

The authors say that emissions reports from the plastics industry are incomplete as they don't adequately account for leaks of methane—a greenhouse gas that's 84 times more climate-warming than carbon dioxide in the short-term—and other gases from the transport and production of plastics feedstocks.

Related: The US falls behind most of the world in plastic pollution legislation

They note that while so-called "chemical recycling," which uses large amounts of energy to melt used plastics into building blocks for fuel and other products, is uncommon now, new plants could add up to 18 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent pollutants by 2025. Enck referred to chemical recycling as plastics' "new deception" now that Americans are aware that less than 9% of plastics are recycled.

Shipping resins and other plastics building blocks overseas accounts for a significant amount of emissions as well, said Jim Vallette, president of Material Research, the firm that Beyond Plastics hired to do the report analysis. "Plastic is very much like the new coal because the coal industry also is counting on exports to stay alive," he added.

Harmful plastics pollution 

Plastics facilities don't just create planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. They also release benzene, formaldehyde, and the carcinogen ethylene oxide, among other harmful pollutants. The plastics industry has come under fire in recent years for building its polluting plants in poorer parts of the country: 90% of the climate pollution from U.S. plastics plants occurs in just 18 communities that are mostly in Texas and Louisiana, according to the report.

"The health impacts of the emissions are disproportionately borne by low-income communities and communities of color, making this a major environmental justice issue," Enck said.

Banner photo credit: Bob Doran/flickr

Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Jeddah sees highest ever recorded rain, flooding coastal city
english.alarabiya.net

Jeddah sees highest ever recorded rain, flooding coastal city

The heavy rain that hit Jeddah was the highest ever recorded rainfall in the coastal city, the spokesperson for Saudi Arabia’s National Center for
China’s 26-storey pig skyscraper ready to slaughter 1 million pigs a year
www.theguardian.com

China’s 26-storey pig skyscraper ready to slaughter 1 million pigs a year

The world’s biggest single-building pig farm has opened in Hubei province, but critics say it will increase the risk of larger animal disease outbreaks
Australian billionaire Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest wants to save the planet with green hydrogen

Australian billionaire Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest wants to save the planet with green hydrogen

Andrew Forrest, one of the world’s major polluters, has the backing of members of the Biden administration for his plan to advance green hydrogen. But the technology he’s promoting doesn’t exist yet.
The Amazon forest is reaching a tipping point and starting to collapse
NASA

The Amazon forest is reaching a tipping point and starting to collapse

Dusty wells. Streams ebbing away. Pristine reserves aflame. Some scientists think the tipping point is already here.
The challenge of tracking methane emissions and why they are higher than publicly reported
www.pbs.org

The challenge of tracking methane emissions and why they are higher than publicly reported

The COP27 climate negotiations in Egypt put a spotlight on the problem of methane emissions, which are responsible for more than a quarter of the warming on the planet today. More countries are pledging to reduce those emissions, but methane leaks remain a serious problem. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports.
From our Newsroom
katharine hayhoe

Peter Dykstra: Journalists I’m thankful for

My third annual list of the over-achieving and under-thanked.

sperm count decline shanna swan

A new analysis shows a “crisis” of male reproductive health

Global average sperm count is declining at a quicker pace than previously known, chemical exposure is a suspected culprit.

WATCH: The latest evidence of widespread sperm count decline

WATCH: The latest evidence of widespread sperm count decline

"Pregnant women, and men planning to conceive a pregnancy, have a responsibility to protect the reproductive health of the offspring they are creating."

sperm count decline

Frequently asked questions on the new sperm count decline study

Sperm counts are declining everywhere — the implications are huge.

midterm elections

Peter Dykstra: Environmental takeaways from Election Day

What happened and, perhaps more importantly, what didn’t happen?

coal pennsylvania

Former coal plant near Pittsburgh is poisoning groundwater: Report

Groundwater near the site contains arsenic levels 372 times higher than safety threshold. Coal ash sites across the U.S. are seeing similar contamination.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.