Producing and incinerating plastic will emit more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases this year, the equivalent of 189 new 500-megawatt coal plants, according to a blockbuster report released this week by the U.S. Center for International Environmental Law and five other organizations.
“If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 500-megawatt coal power plants,” the Center warns in a release. “By 2050, the production and disposal of plastic could generate 56 gigatons of emissions, as much as 14% of the earth’s entire remaining carbon budget.”
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The report is the most comprehensive review ever of the climate impacts of plastics, covering “each stage of the plastic life cycle—from its birth as fossil fuels through refining and manufacture to the massive emissions at (and after) plastic’s useful life ends,” CIEL and its partners state.
“The story of plastic’s contribution to climate change really begins at the wellhead, and we can therefore say that a portion of carbon emissions from oil and gas production is attributable to the creation of plastics,” explained Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology at the Camp Hill, Pennsylvania-based FracTracker Alliance. “As gas travels from hundreds of thousands of wells through a network of millions of miles of pipelines on its way to downstream facilities, there are countless releases of carbon through leaks, venting, and flaring, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide and methane.”
But “in order to get a full picture of these impacts, we have also examined emissions from trucks and heavy machinery that service this gigantic industry, as well as the removal of vast stretches of forested land, which can no longer ameliorate the carbon pollution of the industry,” he added. “At a time when atmospheric carbon dioxide is spiking dramatically, we need to take a hard look at the consequences of extracting carbon from the ground in the first place, including for the production of plastics.”
In a comment accompanying the release, economist Jeffrey Morris of the Sound Resource Management Group identified diapers, pet wastes, and plastic packaging and films as the three most challenging materials for waste disposal.
“In particular, plastic packaging and films cause severe problems at recycling sorting facilities, are the source of substantial fossil carbon emissions when burned at incineration waste-to-energy facilities, and are ubiquitous in environmental litters,” Morris explained. “Because plastics are relatively inefficient as a fuel source and also contain many additives that release pollutants harmful to human and ecosystems health, the solution to plastics littering our waters and landscapes does not lie with using waste plastics as energy sources. That will increase the harm waste plastics are already doing to our climate and health.”
Effective solutions “need to come from reductions in the generation of plastics waste by such actions as eliminating single use plastic packaging of all kinds, promoting compostable as well as reusable food carry out containers, and requiring true biodegradability in all items that currently are found on roadsides, in waterways, and our oceans.”
The report points to the U.S. Gulf Coast and Ohio Valley as the regions where the buildout of new plastic production infrastructure, driven by cheap, fracked natural gas, has been most dramatic. It recommends solving the problem by putting an end to single-use plastics, stopping the development of new oil, gas, and plastics infrastructure, shifting to zero-waste communities, introducing extended producer responsibility “as a critical component of circular economies”, and enforcing ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets for all sectors, including plastics.
“It has long been clear that plastic threatens the global environment and puts human health at risk,” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett. “This report demonstrates that plastic, like the rest of the fossil economy, is putting the climate at risk as well. Because the drivers of the climate crisis and the plastic crisis are closely linked, so, too, are their solutions: humanity must end its reliance on fossil fuels and on fossil plastics that the planet can no longer afford.”
“Our world is drowning in plastic, and the plastics industry has been overlooked as a major source of greenhouse gases,” said Environmental Integrity Project Research Director Courtney Bernhardt. “But there are ways to solve this problem. We need to end the production of single-use, disposable plastic containers and encourage a transition to a zero-waste future.”
“Plastics are fueling the climate catastrophe because they’re made from oil and gas, and oil and gas pollution is the main reason climate change is rapidly accelerating,” added Earthworks South Texas Organizer Priscilla Villa. “Planned plastics production facilities in the Gulf Coast and Appalachia would worsen our global climate crisis while also threatening vulnerable communities with more intense storms like Hurricane Harvey. We need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, including single-use plastics.”