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Plastics industry contribution to climate change to surpass coal by 2030

Plastics are on track to contribute more emissions from climate change than coal-fired power plants by 2030, according to a new report.

In a collaboration between Bennington College and Beyond Plastics, the report found that as fossil fuel companies try to recoup their declining profits, they are increasing plastic production, negating the greenhouse gas savings resulting from the shutdowns of coal-fired power plants in the US.

The report analyzed data from ten stages of plastic production, use, and disposal and found that the U.S. plastic industry releases at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year — the equivalent of 116 medium-sized coal-fired power plants.

In 2020, reported emissions from the plastics industry have increased by 10 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 and a further 12 plastics facilities are currently under construction with a further 15 in the planning stage.

“The fossil fuel industry is losing money in its traditional power generation and transportation markets. They are building new plastic facilities at a staggering speed so they can dump their petrochemicals into plastic. This petrochemical development puts an end to other global efforts to slow down climate change,” said Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator, and president of Beyond Plastics.

The report also found that industry pollution disproportionately impacted less affluent communities; 90 percent of the pollution emitted by the industry occurs in just 18 communities where residents earn 28 percent less than the average American household and 67 percent more likely to be people of color.

“This report represents the bottom, not the ceiling, of the U.S. plastics industry’s climate impact,” said Jim Vallette, the report’s author.

“Federal agencies don’t count many releases yet because current regulations don’t require the industry to report them. For example, no agency keeps track of how much greenhouse gas is released when plastic waste is burned in cement kilns, nor when methane leaks from a gas processing plant, nor when fracked gas is exported from Texas to make single-use plastic in India.”

As the United Nations prepares to meet soon for COP26 in Glasgow, failure to recognize and act to reduce plastic’s contribution to climate change threatens to undermine global efforts to mitigate climate change, the report said.

“The magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions from the plastics industry is staggering, but it is equally worrying that few people in government or in business even talk about it. That should change soon if we hope to stay within the 1.5°C global temperature increase that scientists have pinpointed as critical to averting the most devastating impacts of climate change,” Enck added.

Earlier this month, researchers presented a sustainable plastics manufacturing and waste disposal model that could achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions plastic production at a much more feasible price level than expected.