“If plastic were a country, it would be the world’s fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter." Thus begins Judith Enck, president of the American NGO Beyond Plastics, in presenting a report with explosive potential, “The New Coal. Plastics and Climate Change”, not accidentally released during the days of COP26 in Glasgow.
“Plastic is the new coal”, Enck writes bluntly. All the hard work to reduce emissions by decommissioning coal plants will soon be canceled out by the boom in the plastics industry which, fueled by the shale gas revolution, is galvanizing the US economy.
The report, carried out by Bennington College (headquarters of Beyond Plastics) and Material Research, systematizes and analyzes data relating to the entire plastics supply chain in the United States for the first time, highlighting the underestimated link with climate change. According to the data collected, the US plastics sector – the largest in the world – is releasing at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 116 average-sized coal-fired plants: more than double the official numbers that can be read in the sustainability reports of the industries in the sector. What's worse, the sector is growing strongly and by 2025 another 40 million tonnes of emissions could be added to the bill. "The fossil fuel companies have found their Plan B," the study authors comment.
Yet, the plastic issue is absent from the international climate agenda and isn’t even being talked about in Glasgow. Renewable Matter, instead, chose to talk about it with Judith Enck.
Why is the impact of the plastics industry so underestimated when it comes to climate change?
Well, I think the international focus on plastic has mostly been on how it is damaging our oceans and also on the failure of plastics recycling. In the United States, for instance, only 8.5 percent of plastics are actually recycled, despite the plastics industry spending millions on advertising, trying to convince people that you can easily recycle plastics. That's not true. And when it comes to the climate change issue, people are already overwhelmed dealing with the known traditional sources of carbon in the atmosphere, which are mostly power plants for electricity generation and transportation.
What we decided to focus on in our report is the greenhouse gas emissions from plastics, and it's very timely. I want to emphasize this report only deals with the United States. U.S. coal plants are rapidly closing: about 65 percent of them have shut down. And at the same time, there's been an increase in the construction of plastic manufacturing facilities. So that has created a situation that I think many people are not aware of, where the emissions from plastics within the next 9 or 10 years will eclipse the greenhouse gas emissions from coal. I don't think people in government are actively looking at this. And at the same time, you have state agencies in Louisiana and Texas handing out permits quite readily to plastic manufacturing facilities. Unless you live in one of these communities where one of these facilities is proposed, this is all happening under the radar.
Do you think there is a problem of difficulty in calculating the real impact of plastic industry on climate?
It's not difficult at all, we did it in our report. We looked at the 10 high impact stages of plastic production, use and disposal, and we largely relied on several data from the EPA, the US Department of Energy and the US Department of Commerce, where they existed. And then we did the math. You know, there are some steps for which we had no data, for instance plastics in the ocean: sometimes when it's out there for a long time, you actually get some gas emissions off of the plastic that's floating around in the water. But there's no data for that: there are a couple of scientific papers, so we could estimate from them. To be honest, the federal EPA could have easily done the same report we did, but I don't think plastics is a priority for them and so they just didn't do the work that we did. We hope our report will inspire government agencies to do the analysis that we did.
Do you think it could inspire also other areas in the world?
Yeah, we need every country to do this. Where it does get complicated is that a growing amount of ethane gas and a growing amount of plastics are being exported. The petrochemical build-out that's happening in the U.S. includes ethane gas being sent to China, India and Europe from the United States. It is extracted through fracking in the United States, then loaded onto giant tankers and sent abroad.
So all these countries, including European countries, are buying shale gas from U.S. to produce plastic?
So the US has the largest plastic industry in the world and, at the same time, it exports raw material to manufacture plastics worldwide. And do you calculate all the impacts on climate, also from the raw material extracted for exportation?
Yes. We looked at all the stages: transportation, fracking etc. What we didn't look at is the plastic manufacturing in other countries.
Can’t we deduce a global data set from the data you found for US?
No, we can't. Someone needs to do this in other countries or other regions. We'd be happy to work with other organizations who might want to do this in their own country where we don't have the capacity right now to do that.
Do you know if there are other organizations around the world that are trying to do something like that?
Not that I am aware of. I mean, I think this is the first effort to document the greenhouse gas emissions in a comprehensive way from the United States plastics industry. To be honest, I didn't want to do this report: I was hoping someone else had done it, but as I kept looking, I couldn't find it. So that's why Beyond Plastics decided to do that.
You said greenhouse gases are emitted at each stage of the plastic life-cycle: fossil fuel extraction, manufacturing, waste management and pollution in the sea. Which one is the worst for the climate?
The worst is the ethane gas crackers stage. There are about a million hydro-fracking wells in the United States today. And if you look at a typical well site or well pad, you will see a big pipe where ethane gas is vented into the atmosphere and ethane is a very potent greenhouse gas, worse than CO2. What's been happening lately is new pipelines are being built at the fracking sites, and the ethane is being sent by pipeline to brand new facilities called ethane crackers (they're called “crackers” because when the gas is heated to a really high temperature, it cracks). The gas is transformed into little pieces of plastic, called pellets, nurdles, and sometimes they're powdery and that material is the building block for single use plastic packaging. Unfortunately, the ethane crackers are super emitters of carbon: they currently release 70 million tons of greenhouse gases a year (that's about the equivalent of 35 coal-fired power plants) and if the expansion happens, we may see another 42 million tons of greenhouse gases per year by 2025, which is equal to 21 coal-fired power plants. So this is the point in the plastics process that has us most concerned. Moreover, most of these facilities are being built in Texas and Louisiana in low income communities and communities of color.
Because that’s where they extract gas…
Exactly. And we have a new facility coming soon in Pennsylvania because there's fracking in Pennsylvania too. There are 18 communities where 90 percent of the greenhouse gases are being emitted at plastic facilities, 45 percent in Texas, 35 percent in Louisiana. As you say, that's where the gas is.
So basically, the “shale gas revolution”, if we can call it like this, is boosting the plastic industry in the US. Right?
That's absolutely right. If we didn't have the shale gas revolution, we would not see all of this plastic production.
And that's why the growing of US plastic industry is so crucial also at a global level?
The report talks about the so-called “waste colonialism” of US, which is also a problem in European countries by the way. Do you think it has been getting worse since 2018, when China banned the plastic waste import?
Yeah, substantially worse. China warned the United States and Europe for many years. They said: “we want to receive your recyclables, but you're just sending too much waste in with the recyclables, and if you don't stop it, we're just going to stop all the imports”. And that's what they did. So then, rather than fixing the problem and having less plastic or better source separation as part of recycling, what happened? That the waste was sent to Indonesia and Vietnam and the Philippines. And then, when those countries said “stop sending us your trash!”, it started being sent to Africa. That's the new dumping ground, and it's both of U.S. and EU.
They already had our e-waste and now they have also our plastic waste...
So many of the companies that produce so much plastic are based in the EU and United States. What they really should be doing is shifting to refillable reusable packaging. They should be supporting bottle bills, putting deposits on beverage containers, and there should be packaging products and alternatives to plastic. People are waiting for the big breakthrough, but what's the new super material that we're all waiting for? Well, we've had it for decades. And that packing made out of paper, cardboard, metal and glass can be made from recycled content and can be easily recycled again, which you can't say about plastic. Virtually all the plastic packaging sold is virgin plastic, because virgin plastic is cheaper thanks to hydro-fracking and because of federal subsidies for fossil fuels. But then over 90 percent of plastics in the U.S. never get recycled.
What about the debate on this topic happening in official summits like COP26?
Missing in action! It's really unfortunate. COP did not deal with this at all. The US Congress does not effectively deal with this. What we are attempting to do with our report is squarely put the plastics issue on the climate change agenda. It's a big problem because as we're working so hard to get off fossil fuels for electricity and transportation, we're just replacing the use of fossil fuels for plastic production. So we're missing that opportunity to really drive down greenhouse gas emissions.
As you wrote in the introduction of the report, it seems that fossil fuel industry is looking at plastic as a replacement…
Yeah, it’s their Plan B. I think the fossil fuel industry read the writing on the wall a couple of years ago. They see that more and more people around the world are concerned about climate change, and they're not going to be able to sell as much fossil fuel for transportation and power plants. But they still want to sell their fossil fuels, they're not going to just stop. So they're looking at plastics as their Plan B. They believe that there's going to be a growing market for plastic production, and they're very happy to continue making money and warming the planet for plastics. It's pretty horrendous. I mean, using greenhouse gases to heat your home, it still has profound environmental impacts, but at least it's keeping people warm in the winter or cool in the summer. Using fossil fuels to make single use plastic is even more damaging to the environment because a lot of that plastic ends up in the ocean, and most of that plastic is not recycled. So you're having a pollution multiplier effect.
Do you have any representative in Glasgow at the COP26?
No, no. Our goal is to get plastics on the next COP agenda, but it's a very complicated process to plug in to COP and it's hard for small groups to really be engaged in that. We're just trying to get the word out because we just have such a long way to go. People don't even know the connection, let alone getting policymakers to stand up to the fossil fuel industry or do something to fix it. So we start with this educational piece, and we hope it's going to ramp up into some political action at the national level and then at the international level.