As negotiators try to hammer out a deal at global climate talks in Scotland, a U.S. government plastics researcher is saying that cutting the carbon footprint of the plastics industry will be critical to meeting climate goals.
Right now, the plastics industry accounts for about 3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But a Department of Energy researcher told a recent plastics conference that number needs to come down.
"We've done a full supply chain analysis perspective, really cradle to grave, and the plastics industry accounts for roughly 3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 2 percent of energy consumption," said Kathryn Peretti, who co-leads a key DOE research effort on plastics waste. "If we can make a dent in that it will be really significant."
She spoke Nov. 4 at the online Plastics Packaging Summit, sponsored by the Plastics Industry Association.
She highlighted a U.S. government effort, the Plastics Innovation Challenge, that launched in 2019 and released a draft road map earlier this year that aims to accelerate research around recycling, new material development and product design to limit greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).
She said that while the use of plastics has GHG benefits in food packaging, in electrifying automobiles and in other areas, the rapid growth of virgin plastics production will make it harder for the country to meet its carbon budget, or the amount of cumulative carbon dioxide that can be emitted without pushing global temperatures too high.
"What has become apparent in our analysis is, if we actually hold ourselves to a CO2 budget, we cannot continue that … very steep curve of virgin plastic production and plastic waste collection," she said.
"We need to figure out what a viable solution would be to keep us within that carbon budget," Peretti said. "It's a challenge."
Her presentation did not discuss policy options or how the work intersected with global climate talks ongoing at the COP26 summit in Scotland. Rather, it focused on DOE and U.S. government research initiatives.
Peretti, who had an 11-year career as a chemist and researcher at ExxonMobil Corp. before joining the U.S. government in 2018, currently co-leads the DOE's Bottle Consortium on plastics waste and circularity research.
She said boosting recycling, making plastics out of renewable materials and incorporating design changes in products could cut the plastics industry's GHG emissions in half.
"We think we can save 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions through recycling initiatives, through making recycle-by-design or by degradable plastics from renewables," she said. "These new industries we would hope to see would be providing new jobs."
The draft report said that globally, the plastics industry accounts for 3.8 percent of annual GHG emissions, with manufacturing of conventional fossil-based resins accounting for 61 percent of that.
The report said that 98 percent of plastics today are made from virgin materials, and that only 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled.
It outlined four broad goals, including developing technologies that will address end-of-life problems for more than 90 percent of plastics, provide at least 50 percent energy savings compared to virgin plastic and achieve more than 75 percent carbon utilization from waste plastics.
In a Jan. 19 news release, the day before President Joe Biden took office, the Trump administration's DOE released the draft road map and put out a statement saying that the Plastics Innovation Challenge wanted to "position the United States as a global leader in design and implementation of advanced plastics recycling technologies and in the manufacture of new plastics that are recyclable by design."
In her talk, Peretti said the work meshes with Biden administration priorities on climate, environmental justice and creating green jobs.
"We believe that there's some environmental justice aspects to plastic waste and where the plastic is produced," she said. "If we can mitigate some of those environmental challenges, it will have a positive impact there."
She called efforts to reduce plastic waste, boost recycling and capture and reuse the embedded energy in plastic products critical to the Biden administration's environmental goals. Peretti said it's part of an effort to decarbonize many industries.
"We think there's an opportunity to capture those waste materials and return [them] back into the use phase," she said. "That's where the Department of Energy is coming from. To improve plastics circularity is really critical to administration priorities."