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

LNG gulf coast
Leo Dyson, a retired commercial fisherman. (Credit: Courtney O'Banion for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade)

LNG production comes with a price, Gulf Coast communities warn

US takes the global lead on liquid natural gas production and export, as economic promises and environmental worries collide.

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 2 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less

Can we please quit plastic toothbrushes?

Your toothbrush is part of the plastic crisis. It doesn’t have to be.
coal burning climate impacts
Credit: Safa Hovinen/Flickr

A US engineer had a shocking plan to improve the climate – burn all coal on Earth

A prominent US engineer once argued we should set alight every coal mine on the planet - why did he believe it would improve the climate?

Appropriators reveal details for energy, environment bills

Programs at the Interior Department and EPA could face cuts. The Department of Energy is likely to see a small funding increase.
petrochemical shell pennsylvania plastic
Shell's petrochemical complex in southwestern Pennsylvania. (Credit: Nate Smallwood for Environmental Health News and Sierra Magazine)

Tracking petrochemical accidents across the US

A new database launched yesterday tracks petrochemical accidents across the U.S. and highlights the dangers that these fires and spills pose to nearby communities.

Keep reading...Show less
white house
Photo by Ana Lanza on Unsplash

US and global climate policy: Can Podesta do both?

President Joe Biden expanded the role of his domestic climate adviser, John Podesta, to include international diplomacy. It comes at a critical moment.
From our Newsroom
petrochemical houston gulf coast

Lives “devastated’ by petrochemical industry pollution in Texas: Report

New analysis illustrates the climate, environmental, and human rights tolls linked to petrochemical production surrounding the Houston Ship Channel region.

LNG gulf coast

La producción de gas natural licuado tiene un precio, advierten las comunidades la Costa del Golfo

Entre promesas económicas y preocupaciones ambientales, Estados Unidos lidera la producción y exportación de gas natural licuado.

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

“La gente no sabe qué haríamos sin el petróleo y el gas. Esto nos sale muy caro”.

extreme heat

Op-ed: We are undercounting heat-related deaths in the US

Knowing how many people die or get sick from heat-related causes is essential for the policy arguments to equitably adapt to and mitigate climate change.

environmental justice

LISTEN: Idalmis Vaquero on turning community priorities into policies

“I wanted to find a way to connect the things I was learning in my classroom with the things I was seeing in my community.”

climate change COP28

An audio diary from the COP28 climate conference, Part 1

Sights, sounds and scenes from the largest climate gathering on the planet.

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