According to a new report, the U.S. plastics industry will have more emissions than coal by 2030

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

According to Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics Project report released Thursday, emissions from the plastics sector were the same as 116 coal-fired power plants last year. In the meantime, 42 production and recycling plants for plastics have been opened since 2019 or are under construction or the approval process.

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

Given the decline of the U.S. coal industry, the report’s authors say policy makers at home and at the upcoming COP26 climate summit, a conference held later this month where leaders will summarize the details of the climate pledges, integrates the climate impact of plastics into efforts to reduce emissions.

“Not using plastics leaves out a large part of the problem,” said Enck. “We want the national heads of state and government meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, to take plastics as seriously as they do transport and power generation.”

Climate costs of US plastics

The authors of the report calculated the emissions from 10 stages of plastic production, from hydraulic fracturing or fracking, for the raw material – ethane in natural gas – to the incineration of waste in incineration plants.

Cracker plants, in which natural gas is heated to such high temperatures that it breaks down into plastic building blocks like ethylene, have the highest emissions and produce around 70 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent pollutants, which is the same as the emissions from 35 coal-fired power plants. Since the report examines the emissions of a number of greenhouse gases, the authors converted the warming potential of all pollutants into an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas.

The authors say the plastics industry’s emissions reports are incomplete as they cover the leakage of methane – a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more climate-warming in the short term than carbon dioxide – and other gases from transport and manufacturing of plastic raw materials.

They point out that so-called “chemical recycling”, in which large amounts of energy are used to melt used plastics into building blocks for fuels and other products, is uncommon today, but new plants can produce up to 18 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents Could add pollutants by 2025. Enck called chemical recycling a “new illusion” of plastics, as Americans are aware that less than 9% of plastics are recycled.

Shipping resins and other plastic building blocks overseas is also responsible for a significant amount of emissions, said Jim Vallette, president of Material Research, the company that commissioned Beyond Plastics to analyze the report. “Plastic is very similar to the new coal because the coal industry also relies on exports to stay alive,” he added.

Harmful plastic pollution

Plastic plants not only cause greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. In addition to other pollutants, they also release benzene, formaldehyde and the carcinogenic ethylene oxide. The plastics industry has come under fire in recent years for building its polluting plants in poorer parts of the country: 90% of climate pollution from US plastics factories occurs in just 18 communities, mostly in Texas and Louisiana, according to the report.

“The health effects of emissions are disproportionately borne by low-income communities and color communities, which makes this an important issue of environmental justice,” said Enck.

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