“Unlike the plastic trash choking waterways, the plastics industry’s devastating impact on climate is happening under the radar, with little public scrutiny and even less government accountability,” said Judith Enk, president of Beyond Plastics and a former US Environmental Protection Agency. Plastic pollution takes on another meaning, as a new report predicts that US industry greenhouse gas emissions will exceed coal emissions by the end of the decade.
Plastic is a major source of carbon pollution but is often overlooked. Production in the United States reaches at least 232 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, according to a report by Bennington College and the nonprofit organization Beyond Plastics, plastic production is expected to release another 55 million tons by 2025 if 42 planned plants are put into operation. Currently or under construction.
Last year, US coal power generated 786 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, an amount that is expected to decline as coal-fired power plants outcompete natural gas, solar and wind power.
Between 2019 and 2020, carbon pollution attributable to coal decreased by 166 million tons, as coal continued to decline and the level of plastic rose.
Carbon pollution from other parts of the economy exceeds that from plastic, but as carbon is removed from other sectors, the continued growth of emissions in the industry undermines President Joe Biden’s goal of reaching net carbon pollution by 2050.
Much of the carbon pollution in plastics comes from the fracturing processes and the transfer of gases used in production. One of them is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere 86 times more than the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
The report says that leaks at wellheads and along pipelines create 36 million tons of carbon pollution. Other parts of natural gas, such as ethane, are used as feedstock, and fracking produces another 70 million tons. Other plastic feedstocks such as coal and ammonia are produced 28 million additional tons.
Burning plastic waste is responsible for 15 million tons of carbon pollution, and the report says that even so-called “chemical recycling”, which typically uses high heat to melt plastic into component parts, could add another 18 million tons by 2025.
The Plastics Industry Association said the report ignores some of the benefits of plastics that could offset some of the pollution associated with production: “Plastic is lighter, more durable than alternatives, and reduces the overall weight of products.
A spokesperson for E&E News said lighter products require less fuel to transport. “If plastic packaging were replaced with other materials, waste and energy consumption would double, weight and costs would quadruple,” the spokesperson said.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade association of American chemical companies, claims that alternatives to plastic packaging will have 2.7 times greater carbon footprints.
The new report’s findings align with previous efforts by the Center for International Environmental Law, which found that by 2050, carbon pollution from plastic could reach 2.5 billion metric tons worldwide, more than double currently.
Plastic production facilities also tend to be concentrated near communities that disproportionately bear the burden of pollution. The authors of the new report note that “more than 90% of the climate pollution reported by the plastics industry to the Environmental Protection Agency occurs in 18 communities, mostly along the Texas and Louisiana coasts. “People who live within 3 miles of these petrochemical clusters earn 28% less than the median American household income and are 67% more likely to be of color.”
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