A new report says the U.S. plastics industry is a large and growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and will be more responsible for climate change than the coal industry within a few years.
"We are in a climate crisis," Judith Enck, president of the report's sponsor, Beyond Plastics, said at an Oct. 21 news conference. "If we have any hope of effectively driving down greenhouse gas emissions, the production and the use and disposal of plastics has to be on the agenda."
A new report seeks to quantify how the U.S. plastics industry contributes to greenhouse gas emissions through its entire life cycle. It concludes that plastics are on track to being a bigger climate change problem than coal by 2030.
The report, "The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change," was released by Bennington College's Beyond Plastics program, which is headed by Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator.
According to the report, the U.S. plastics industry is releasing at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.
But while coal power plants are being phased out, expanding resin production and chemical recycling will cancel out the greenhouse gas reductions gained by those shutdowns.
In 2020, the plastics industry's reported greenhouse gas emissions increased by 10 million tons compared to the previous year, thanks to new crackers coming online. With construction currently underway on another 12 plastics facilities, and 15 more on the drawing board, the industry could emit more than 40 million more tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2025, according to the report.
The plastics industry typically makes the case that plastics have a lower carbon footprint than alternative materials. For example, a study commissioned by the American Chemistry Council's plastics division in 2016 concluded that the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than replacing plastics with alternative materials.
In response to a question from Plastics News, Enck said she isn't suggesting replacing single-use plastics with single-use products made from other materials.
"It is correct that plastics is lighter, but we are looking for a very significant shift toward reusable/refillable and source-reduced packaging," she said. "I think the recent PepsiCo announcement, embracing a SodaStream model, is a good example of that. Passage of EPR [extended producer responsibility] laws in Maine and Oregon and soon other states will help drive that change.
"If reuse and refill is not an option, alternatives to plastics such as fiber and glass and metal can be made from recycled content and can more easily be recycled than plastics, i.e., achieving a much higher recycling rate," she added.
"Our report did not look at transportation of consumer goods. But, on that score, I think it's important to point out the trucking and shipping industries are decarbonizing, so any residual advantage plastics hold will disappear over time," Enck said.
The Washington-based Plastics Industry Association responded to the report on Oct. 21, calling it biased against plastics and pointing to studies that show plastics have lower environmental footprints than other materials.
"It's no surprise that an organization named Beyond Plastics would cherry pick data to fit their narrative in order to raise more money for themselves and attack the work being done by nearly 1 million Americans in the process," the association said in a statement.
"Plastic is lighter and more durable than alternatives and reduces the overall weight of products. Lighter products require less fuel to transport. That's a fact. Reduced weight translates to a smaller environmental footprint by lowering energy use and carbon emissions," the statement said.
"A 2020 Imperial College of London study reviewed 73 life cycle assessments, and most showed plastic performs better than alternatives from a carbon perspective. Several of those studies found materials used as alternatives to plastic packaging — such as cotton, glass or metal — have significantly higher CO2 impact or water usage," the association said in its statement.
The New Coal report also emphasized environmental justice issues, which have been gaining traction in President Joe Biden's administration. According to the report, in 2020, 90 percent of the plastics industry's climate change pollution occurred in 18 communities where residents earn 28 percent less than the average U.S. household and are 67 percent more likely to be people of color.
"In addition to the climate pollution, these facilities released massive amounts of toxic pollutants including plastic powders and pellets into the air and water. This pollution causes extreme cumulative impacts in some of this country's most vulnerable communities," said Jim Vallette, president of Material Research and the report's author.
Enck called on Congress to consider the impact of plastics on climate change as it finalizes federal spending bills. She added that the United Nations should acknowledge and act to reduce plastics' contribution to climate change globally.
"The United Nations is convening an important meeting, COP26 [Climate Change Conference] next month in Glasgow, Scotland, with little to no recognition of how plastics is linked to climate change. If we have any hope of effectively driving down greenhouse gas emissions, the production and the use and disposal of plastics has to be on the agenda," Enck said.