From making it to managing it, plastic is a major contributor to climate change
New report finds plastic production and use could have the equivalent impact of nearly 300 new coal power plants on Earth’s climate over the next decade.
Plastic is polluting oceans, freshwater lakes and rivers, food and us — but it’s also a major contributor to global climate change, warns a new report.
Scientists, policymakers and consumers are increasingly aware of the threat plastic pollution poses to oceans and water, wildlife, food and people. However, often lost in calculating plastics’ environmental harm is its contributions to climate change.
“I don’t feel the petrochemical buildout is being considered as part of climate change discussions at any level in our state [Pennsylvania],” Michele Fetting, program manager at the Breathe Project, a coalition of 24 environmental organizations, told EHN.
Petrochemical facilities, such as cracker plants, take fuels like natural gas and convert them to chemical products, which are most often used to make plastics. Shell is building a massive petrochemical complex in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, as part of a broader effort to put such facilities in multiple spots along the Ohio River Valley.
Each step in the life of a piece of plastic — production, transportation and managing waste — uses fossil fuels and emits greenhouse gases and, as petrochemical and plastic production continues to ramp up, these impacts must be considered, according to the report released today by the Center for International Environmental Law, the Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, 5Gyres, and #BreakFreeFromPlastic.
The organizations say putting a stop to increases in petrochemical and plastic production “is a critical element in addressing the climate crisis.”
“Nothing short of stopping the expansion of petrochemical and plastic production and keeping fossil fuels in the ground will create the surest and most effective reductions in the climate impacts from the plastic lifecycle,” the authors wrote.
The report included stark numbers:
In 2019, producing and incinerating plastic will emit an estimated 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, the equivalent of 189 coal-fired power plants.
If production continues on the same trajectory, by 2030 plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions will reach 1.34 gigatons per year, which is roughly the emissions released by 295 coal plants.
By 2050, the annual greenhouse gas emissions from plastics will reach an estimated 2.8 gigatons per year – the equivalent of about 615 coal plants.
Carroll Muffett, president & CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, told EHN the report is “underestimating the climate impacts of plastics production.”
“If you look, for instance, at fracking, there are uncalculated emissions with land disturbance, or shipment of water to fracking wells, or massive ongoing leakage from natural gas pipelines,” he said. “All will dramatically increase with upstream feedstocks for plastics.”
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