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Why plastics are also a climate issue

Plastic pollution is the environmental issue Americans care most about. According to a recent poll, plastic in the oceans has overtaken climate change as the environmental issue of greatest concern. Unfortunately, the poll didn’t ask people whether they knew that plastic is also a climate issue.

We can’t tackle one successfully without tackling the other, as many reasons for and solutions to the growing plastic and climate problems are the same. Here’s why:

Oil, natural gas or coal are to plastic what eggs are to a souffle: the main ingredient. Therefore, the emissions associated with fossil fuels form a big piece of the plastics emissions pie.

In 2019, global plastic production (PDF) (from extraction through resin production) and industrial incineration alone added the same amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as nearly 190 500-megawatt coal plants. That comparison doesn’t count all of the emissions associated with plastic throughout its lifecycle, including leaks, vents and certain ones from land clearance and waste.

In addition, petrochemicals — chemicals derived from fossil fuels and used to make plastics, fertilizers, synthetic rubber and other products — are becoming a huge driver of global oil and natural gas use. They will account for more than a third of the global growth of oil demand by 2030 and nearly half by 2050 — more than trucks, aviation and shipping combined. They’ll use as much natural gas by 2030 as half of Canada’s total current consumption. 

Plastics will account for more than a third of the global growth of oil demand by 2030 and nearly half by 2050 — more than trucks, aviation and shipping combined.
Even if renewable energy powered all plastic production, climate-altering gases would halve, but the energy-intensive petrochemical conversion processes still would be a significant source of emissions, and the massive planned growth in the sector means that plastics would still spew out more carbon in the world than they do now.

In the U.S. Gulf Coast area alone, emissions from new and planned petrochemical facilities and liquified natural gas terminals — where gas is exported for manufacture of plastics and other goods — may reach over 540 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030. That is more than 8 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.

Cheap fuels

Global plastics production has quadrupled in the past 40 years, and it’s growing faster than such other carbon-intensive manufacturing industries as cement, steel and aluminum. Why? Because increased production of oil, fracked gas and — ironically — demand reductions due to concern about climate change mean that there are a lot of cheap fossil fuels. Fossil-fuel and petrochemical companies therefore are investing copiously in building plastics infrastructure and drumming up new uses for plastics.

In the United States, the domestic and foreign chemical industry is spending $203 billion on building 343 new and expanded plastics and petrochemical facilities, particularly in Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. Annual greenhouse emissions from two new plastics plants under construction in Pennsylvania and Texas alone would add the equivalent of nearly 800,000 new cars to the road (PDF).

In fact, plastics production in Texas led to this recent headline: "Increased Emissions in Texas are Canceling Out Climate Progress Elsewhere Across the Country."

Despite leading the nation in wind energy, Texas’s industrial emissions are surging along with its oil and gas production, and it is using those fuels in a massive plastics build-out. China, too, is beefing up its plastic production, including the highly greenhouse-gas-intensive coals-to-olefins technology. Saudi Arabia’s Aramco has partnered with chemical giants Dow and SABIC to construct massive chemical and plastics manufacturing facilities.

Fossil-fuel subsidies play a giant role in the build-out. The International Monetary Fund calculated that global post-tax energy subsidies were $4.7 trillion in 2015 (and $5.2 trillion in 2017), with researchers estimating that the largest subsidizers are China at $1.4 trillion and the United States at $649 billion. They posit that efficient fossil-fuel pricing in 2015 would have lowered global carbon emissions by 28 percent while also cutting fossil-fuel air pollution deaths by nearly half.

The keynote speaker at the 2019 Global Plastic Summit said, "We have to maintain public trust while the industry grows." If it grows on a business-as-usual basis, in a mere 10 years — by 2030 — the global emissions we count now from plastics will equal 295 new coal-fired plants and 615 plants by 2050. That infrastructure and its discarded plastic will be with us for decades. 

Recipe for disaster

The waste phase of the plastic life-cycle releases carbon dioxide and other, even more potent greenhouse gases, regardless whether that waste is managed. Aside from the emissions associated with landfilling, incinerating and recycling, the unmanaged plastic that winds up in our oceans is a climate threat in addition to the human, environmental and economic problems it causes. Research from the University of Hawaii showed that as plastic at the ocean surface degrades, it releases not only chemicals but also greenhouse gases.

Polyethylene — the type of plastic in grocery bags, and the most produced and discarded plastic globally — is a prolific emitter of both methane and ethylene, both greenhouse gases. Once exposed to sunlight, it starts to break down. As more surface area is exposed as the bits get smaller, the more gas is released. So, the plastic in the ocean that everyone is so concerned about is another growing source of potent climate-altering gases and is not counted in United Nations emissions scenarios. 

Not only do plastic production and waste add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere ... but plastic also appears to be reducing the ocean's ability to absorb those gases.
Not only do plastic production and waste add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere when we cannot afford to emit another ounce, but plastic also appears to be reducing the ocean's ability to absorb those gases. The oceans — actually, the microscopic plants and animals called phytoplankton and zooplankton that live there — perform a critical service for human survival: they sequester carbon dioxide. The critters have an appetite for tasty plastic bits and the petrochemicals in them, but like too much junk food, plastic is interfering with their metabolism, reproductive abilities and survival, and therefore their ability to act as a carbon sink.

This is a recipe for disaster, especially combined with the recent news that tropical forests are also losing their vital carbon-absorbing function owing to prolonged, excessive heat and droughts that kill trees. If the world maintains its current upwards emissions path, forests will become sources of greenhouse gases instead of carbon sinks by the mid-2030s. Plastic is also affecting soil, another key carbon sponge and nourishment for trees and other plants.

Beyond recycling

With slogans such as "Recycled plastic paves the way to the future," companies promote recycling to contend with the ever-growing plastic waste. However, in the words of U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), who is co-sponsoring a comprehensive Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, "The plastics industry is pressing the public to believe that if we just recycled enough, plastic wouldn’t be a problem. That is not true."

In February, the Earth Island Institute filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Proctor & Gamble, Nestle and others to force them to take ownership of their plastic packaging. Earth Island contends that companies knew that recycling capacity would be over-run and their plastic would pollute waterways and oceans.

Some reasons why we can’t recycle our way out of the mushrooming problem include the fact that not all plastics are recyclable; recyclable plastic usually can go through the process only once, unlike glass and aluminum, which are also much higher-value products; and recycling only delays the time before plastic becomes waste. Climate change is another. 

Don’t get me wrong — I love my Ziploc bags and polyester yoga pants as much as the next person. But the idea that we are simultaneously pumping ever more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere while destroying our feverish planet’s ability to absorb them — well, I’m ready to pack my toiletries and do my downward dogs in something else.

As important as personal choices may be, more significant is the need to end the production and use of non-essential plastic, especially plastic that is used once briefly and discarded. That means not building any new oil, gas, coal or petrochemical infrastructure — we have more than enough, even for all the additional latex gloves in use. As we pour about $2 trillion of coronavirus stimulus into the U.S. economy, we should help fossil-fuel industry workers and communities, and transition to a fossil-free economy.

To reduce demand for plastics, we can all do our part, including asking companies to take back used products or pay to properly manage them to keep old phones, pens and packaging from becoming your or your city’s job to collect and manage. Extended Producer Responsibility is the law in Europe and needs to be implemented everywhere. Businesses and agencies also can institute zero-waste and no-single-use procurement policies.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t take more fossil fuels out of the ground, at least not unless it’s done on a net-carbon-negative basis. We should put the trillions of dollars we spend subsidizing fossil fuels to better use, including investing in clean energy, green chemistry and carbon sequestration and removal, at the same time we divest from fossils. All emissions have to be counted, including from the plastics lifecycle, and we still need enforceable limits to reduce them. In the meantime, methane and carbon dioxide leaks in wells and pipelines should get fixed — stat.

Sounds a lot like what we need to do on the climate front. 

And the next time a poll asks, "Which is worse, plastic pollution or climate change?" people will begin to understand that they are connected, and actively work to reverse both.

The author is grateful to Steven Feit, Dave Grossman, Amara Mien Rose Kaufman, Dan Lashof and Peter Yolles for their input on this article.

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