US Plastics Industry Will Have More Emissions Than Coal by 2030, New Report Says

According to a new report, the U.S. plastics sector will emit more greenhouse gases than coal-fired power stations by 2030 thanks to the construction of numerous new plastics manufacturing and recycled facilities.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, plastics sector emissions equaled those of 116 coal-fired power stations last year. report out Thursday from Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics project. Since 2019, 42 plastics manufacturing and recycling plants have been built or are being permitted.

“As the world transitions away from fossil fuels for electricity generation and for transportation, the petrochemical industry has found a new market for fossil fuels: plastics,” Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, told reporters on Thursday.

The report authors state that the U.S.’s coal industry is in decline and they recommend policymakers at home as well as at the upcoming. COP26 climate summitAt the end of the month, world leaders will meet at a conference to discuss climate promises.

“Leaving out plastics is leaving out a giant piece of the problem,” Enck said. “We would like the national leaders that are gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, to take the plastics issue just as seriously as they are taking transportation and electricity generation.”

Climate Costs of U.S. Plastics

The report authors calculated emissions from 10 stages of plastics production, from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for the raw material — ethane in natural gas — all the way up to burning waste in incinerators.

Cracker plants are where natural gas is heated to such high temperatures that it breaks down into plastic building blocks likeethylene. They produce the most carbon dioxide-equivalent pollutants. This is equivalent to the emissions from 35 coal-fired power stations. The report considers emissions from a range greenhouse gases. Therefore, the authors converted all pollutants’ warming potential into an equivalent amount carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas.

The authors say that emissions reports from the plastics industry are incomplete as they don’t adequately account for leaks of methane—a greenhouse gas that’s 84 times more climate-warming than carbon dioxide in the short-term—and other gases from the transport and production of plastics feedstocks.

They note that while so-called “chemical recycling,” which uses large amounts of energy to melt used plastics into building blocks for fuel and other products, is uncommon now, new plants could add up to 18 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent pollutants by 2025. Enck referred to chemical recycling as plastics’ “new deception” now that Americans are aware that less than 9% of plastics are recycled.

Jim Vallette, president at Material Research, which Beyond Plastics hired to analyze the report, stated that plastics building blocks and resins are responsible for significant emissions. “Plastic is very much like the new coal because the coal industry also is counting on exports to stay alive,” he added.

Harmful plastics pollution

Plastics facilities don’t just create planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. They also release formaldehyde, benzene and other harmful substances. carcinogen ethylene oxideAmong other harmful pollutants, The plastics industry has come under fire for its recent construction of polluting plants within poorer parts of the United States. According to the report 90% of climate pollution caused by U.S. plastics plants happens in just 18 communities, most of which are located in Texas and Louisiana.

“The health impacts of the emissions are disproportionately borne by low-income communities and communities of color, making this a major environmental justice issue,” Enck said.