Plastic Is the New Coal

Plastic Is the New Coal
A plastic water bottle is seen washed up on the banks of the Anacostia River on March 21, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP, Getty Images)

A new report out on Thursday warns that plastics will overtake coal-fired power plants as a major leading source of greenhouse emissions in the U.S. in less than a decade. The continued rise of plastic production threatens to wipe away the modest progress made against climate change that’s come from reducing our dependence on coal in recent years, the authors say. And like so many things, the consequences of this unfettered growth are likely to impact people of colour and those living with poverty more than others.

The report is the work of Beyond Plastics, a project affiliated with Bennington College in Vermont that’s focused on ending plastic pollution. But it builds upon other recent attempts to quantify the environmental costs of plastic, which is largely produced through the distillation of crude oil, including the Environmental Integrity Project. It was also authored by scientists from Material Research, a research firm focused on “research and project development that advances environmentally sound, healthy, and equitable solutions to complex issues.”

According to the authors, the total emissions footprint of the plastics industry in the U.S. in 2020 — which includes production, usage, and disposal — is now estimated to be the equivalent of least 232 million tons of carbon dioxide, or the average emissions from 116 standard coal plants (carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e, is used as a common unit to gauge the impact of different greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide as a measuring stick). By 2030, they estimate that this footprint will eclipse the total output of coal in the U.S.

“This report documents the plastic sector’s staggering contribution to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, which is now poised to surpass those of coal-fired power plants: Plastics is the new coal,” Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator during the Obama administration and the president of Beyond Plastics, wrote in the foreword to the report.

“From fracking, to cracking to incineration — plastics release massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” Enck said in an email. “Plastics must be on the climate change agenda just like power generation and transportation are.”

The calculations, the authors say, take into account the current growth of the industry on a local level. Since 2019, they note, at least 42 new plastics facilities are being developed, under construction, or have already opened. The report also accuses the industry of undercounting the emissions it pumps out, often by not including emissions from leaks during the manufacturing or transport of raw materials used to produce plastic (also called feedstock). And the authors caution that even their numbers may be an underestimate of plastic’s true climate toll.

“This report represents the floor, not the ceiling, of the U.S. plastics industry’s climate impact,” said Jim Vallette, report author and president of Material Research, in a statement. “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.”

Claims that plastics can be reliably recycled, thus cutting down on emissions, are similarly suspect; only a small fraction (less than 9% by the report authors’ count) is truly recycled. Newfangled technologies that promise to chemically recycle plastics into new raw materials aren’t much better either, since they require even more energy and fuel to operate and are more akin to simply incinerating plastics, the authors say. Other research has cast doubt on chemical recycling having a net positive environmental impact.

Notably, earlier research from the group has estimated that 65% of coal plants in the country have since been retired. But while coal may be on the way out, the expected jump in plastics production could cancel out those benefits, the authors warn. Indeed, petrochemical companies have been open about the fact that a ramp-up of plastics production may represent their last big opportunity for growth, in the face of continued public outcry against fossil fuels. And both locally and globally, the added pollution from these new factories will first reach the lower-income communities where they tend to be built, the authors note.

“In this instance, just 18 communities are emitting 90% of the climate pollution from plastics production,” Enck said, referring to the analysis. “This comes with massive amounts of air toxics. This is an injustice and has to stop.”

Other scientists have become increasingly vocal about the harms of plastics, both to the environment and human health. But the authors say that relatively little attention has been paid to the effects these ubiquitous materials have on climate change specifically — a dismissal that’s all the more relevant with the United Nations annual climate talks set to open in less than two weeks.

“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,” said Enck.