Plastic will create more pollution in US than coal by 2030, study says

‘This is a significant and growing source of greenhouse gas emissions,’ says think tank president

Helen Elfer
Thursday 21 October 2021 22:43
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By the end of the decade, the contribution of the United States’ plastics industry to climate change will exceed that of coal-fired power, says a study.

A report from Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics think tank says that the US plastics industry is currently responsible for at least 232 million tons of CO2e gas emissions per year – the equivalent to those of 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

The Huffington Post reports that while roughly 65% of the country’s coal-fired plants closed over the past decade, the US plastics industry has grown at such a rate, it threatens to offset any benefits that might have resulted.

Plastics already produce 3.8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions throughout their lifecycle, and while the industry often touts plastic’s recyclability, Beyond Plastics’ report says: “In truth, less than 9% of plastics are recycled, and new proposals for “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling” actually have more in common with incineration—a major source of both climate emissions and harmful air pollutants.”

“When most people think of the plastic problem, they think of water pollution and the fact that plastic recycling has been such a failure. They don’t think about climate change,” said Judith Enck, the president of Beyond Plastics. “But this is a significant and growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The production of plastics also has an immediate impact on a more human scale. More than 90% of the carbon emissions the plastics industry reports to the Environmental Protection Agency pollutes just 18 communities, primarily along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas, the report found. Residents there are more likely to be poor and nonwhite.

Communities in which plastics facilities are built experience disproportionately high rates of lung cancer, asthma and organ diseases and Louisiana’s infamously dense petrochemical corridor is also known as “Cancer Alley.”

In the introduction to the report, Ms Enck wrote: “As countries finally begin to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels for power and transportation, the demand for fossil fuels is falling. In desperation, the fossil fuel industry is looking to plastics as a replacement market, as this report details.”

She added: “Plastics is the fossil fuel industry’s Plan B. But there is no Plan B for the rest of us.”

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