Plastic may soon trump coal as climate killer in US: study

Plastic may soon trump coal as climate killer in US: study
© Associated Press/Mohammed Ballas

The U.S. plastics industry’s contribution to climate change is on course to surpass that of coal-fired power plants by 2030, a new study has found.

Plastics are responsible for generating at least 232 million tons of carbon-based emissions per year — an amount equivalent to the average emissions from 116 average-sized coal-fired facilities, according to the report, published by Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics initiative.

In 2020, the plastic industry’s reported emissions rose by 10 million tons over 2019, the authors found. Meanwhile, construction is underway on another 12 facilities and 15 are in planning stages — meaning that altogether, the new sites could emit more than 40 million additional tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2025, according to the study. 

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“The fossil fuel industry is losing money from its traditional markets of power generation and transportation,” Judith Enck, former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics, said in a statement.

“They are building new plastics facilities at a staggering clip so they can dump their petrochemicals into plastics,” she added. “This petrochemical buildout is cancelling out other global efforts to slow climate change.”

Praising the recent closure of 65 percent of the nation’s coal-fired power plants, the authors stressed that the increase in plastics production is outweighing those gains.

Although the U.S. plastics industry reported releasing 114 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2020, an analysis by the Maine-based firm Material Research identified “a severe undercounting of plastics’ climate impacts,” said a news release from Beyond Plastics.

That analysis examined data from federal agencies, including the EPA, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy, and identified an additional 118 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions generated from other stages of plastics production — the equivalent of another 59 average-sized coal-fired power plants, the report said.

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

Federal agency calculations, Vallette explained, do not yet count releases in their entirety because regulations do not require the industry to report them. For example, no agency follows how much greenhouse gases are released when plastic waste is burned or when fracked gas is exported across the world to manufacture single-use plastics.

The report authors slammed lawmakers for failing to acknowledge and act to reduce the contribution of plastics to climate change, particularly as Congress finalizes massive infrastructure and reconciliation bills, and as world leaders prepare to gather for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26) in Scotland next month. 

In response to the report, Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) — which represents 28 companies, including oil giants and major chemical manufacturers — said the study “fails to recognize the many environmental benefits plastics provide that move society toward a lower carbon future and a more circular economy.” A circular economy is one in which production focuses on extending the lifecycle of products and reducing waste.

“Like other manufacturing processes, plastics manufacturing does emit greenhouse gases,” Baca said in a statement, emphasizing that plastics enable the production of lighter vehicles, wind turbine blades and foam insulation — all of which reduce emissions.

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As advanced recycling technologies continue “gaining momentum at an accelerating pace,” Baca added that many consumer brands are announcing partnerships that employ such technologies.

Plastic packaging, he continued, requires less material to perform the same function in comparison to glass, metal and paper alternatives. “Plastics can ultimately result in a net savings of greenhouse gas emissions over their lifecycles compared to the use of many alternatives,” Baca said.

Jessica Bowman, president of the Plant Based Products Council (PBPC), voiced her support for the report, which she said “confirms our perspective that plastics and other products we use every day have significant climate impacts.” 

“Plant-based products present an opportunity to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels,” she added.

Bowman, who was not involved with the study, stressed that plant-based products “are the epitome of the circular economy,” particularly when made to be compostable or recyclable. The association she leads, PBPC, includes companies and organizations that are working to advance the adoption of renewable, plant-based materials — many of which would serve to replace traditional plastics. 

“There's a growing recognition of the environmental benefits of these products, and that's leading to broader adoption,” Bowman said, acknowledging that there is more than can be done from an economic standpoint to incentivize the development of such plastics. 

The use of petroleum to manufacture plastics “is a significant contributor to climate change,” Bowman noted, citing data from the textiles industry indicating that 342 million barrels of oil are used every year to make plastic-based fibers for fabrics.

“We're not going to get rid of all the products that we need and use every day,” Bowman said. “We certainly could use less products — but for things we need, being able to make them in a better way, making them from renewable inputs, is really critical.”