The Center for International Environmental Law has issued a new report that should send a shudder down your spine. It says demand for plastics is accelerating, especially in developing nations. If the “business as usual” scenario plays out at anticipated, by 2050, plastics — from extracting the oil and gas they are made from, to manufacturing them, to distributing them, to disposing of them — will contribute 2.8 million gigatons of carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere each year, equivalent to the emissions from 615 coal-fired generating plants.
The Executive Summary
Between now and then, plastics are expected to add 56 gigatons of greenhouse gases to the environment — equal to as much as 13% of the total remaining carbon budget allowable if the goal of the COP 21 climate agreements are to be met. That goal is set at keeping average global temperatures from rising less than 1.5º Celsius. Here’s an excerpt from the report’s Executive Summary.
Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each stage of the plastic life cycle: 1) fossil fuel extraction and transport, 2) plastic refining and manufacture, 3) managing plastic waste, and 4) its ongoing impact in our oceans, waterways,and landscape.
This report examines each of these stages of the plastic life cycle to identify the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, sources of uncounted emissions, and uncertainties that likely lead to
underestimation of plastic’s climate impacts.
The report compares greenhouse gas emissions estimates against global carbon budgets and emissions commitments, and it considers how current trends and projections will impact our ability to reach agreed emissions targets.
This report compiles data, such as downstream emissions and future growth rates, that have not
previously been accounted for in widely used climate models. This accounting paints a grim picture: plastic proliferation threatens our planet and the climate at a global scale.
Due to limitations in the availability and accuracy of certain data, estimates in this report should be considered conservative; the greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle are almost certainly higher than those calculated here.
Despite these uncertainties, the data reveal that the climate impacts of plastic are real, significant, and require urgent attention and action to maintain a survivable climate.
In other words, the world is drowning in plastics and it is only going to get worse. Here is a chart that projects the increase in demand for plastics by region between now and the year 2100.
The CIEL says putting a stop to increases in petrochemical and plastic production “is a critical element in addressing the climate crisis. Nothing short of stopping the expansion of petrochemical and plastic production and keeping fossil fuels in the ground will create the surest and most effective reductions in the climate impacts from the plastic life cycle.” It adds the following predictions.
- In 2019, producing and incinerating plastic will emit an estimated 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, the equivalent of 189 coal-fired power plants.
- If production continues on the same trajectory, by 2030 plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions will reach 1.34 gigatons per year, which is roughly the emissions released by 295 coal plants.
- By 2050, the annual greenhouse gas emissions from plastics will reach an estimated 2.8 gigatons per year – the equivalent of about 615 coal plants.
Carroll Muffett, CEO of CIEL, tells Environmental Health News the report is “underestimating the climate impacts of plastics production. If you look, for instance, at fracking, there are uncalculated emissions with land disturbance, or shipment of water to fracking wells, or massive ongoing leakage from natural gas pipelines. All will dramatically increase with upstream feedstocks for plastics.” The CIEL report claims, “If growth trends continue, plastic will account for 20 percent of global oil consumption by 2050.”
Plastics & Oceans
There is little research so far on the impact of plastics on the world’s oceans. What research has been done suggests microplastics are toxic to phytoplankton — which take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ocean water and produce carbohydrates via photosynthesis — and zooplankton — microscopic creatures that transport carbon deep into the ocean. “Without this critical step in the process, the CO2 fixed by the phytoplankton would quickly re-enter the surface waters and the atmosphere,” the CIEL report warns.
“This is deeply troubling,” says Muffett. “There’s potential that microplastics are interfering with climate not just by release methane, but by interfering with the ocean’s ability to serve as natural carbon sink.”
Driven By Supply Not Demand
Despite growing awareness of plastic pollution, there is an ongoing expansion of petrochemical and plastic production happening in the United States, as well as in China, the Middle East, Europe, and South America, says EHN. The American Chemistry Council estimated $164 billion would be invested in new or expanded petrochemical facilities in the US in 2017. In fact, when the year was over, the Council reported $200 billion was invested in more than 330 new or expanded facilities. “In the space of a year, both the planned investments and the number of new or expanded facilities grew by more than 25 percent,” it said.
Carroll Muffett says “the production of plastics is driven not by demand but by supply. Plastic feedstocks are 99 percent fossil fuels. Plastics are effectively a byproduct, taking what would be a waste stream from oil and gas. The fracking boom is resulting in a massive buildout of new infrastructure for plastics production.” Roughly 70% of petrochemicals in the US become plastic resins, synthetic rubber, or fibers, Muffett adds.
Michele Fetting is the program manager for the Breathe Project in Pennsylvania — a coalition of 24 environmental organizations. She tells EHN, “I don’t feel the petrochemical buildout is being considered as part of climate change discussions at any level in our state [Pennsylvania].”
She agrees with Carroll Muffett that supply is driving production. In Pennsylvania, she says, there is “frack sand, cheap gas, water supplies and infrastructure.” Industry sees this as the perfect location to build this … Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory of plastics.” Shell, which is trying to present a greener face to the world by installing EV chargers at some of its gasoline stations, is building one of the largest new petrochemical plants in western Pennsylvania.
Concerns About Health But Not Climate Change
Fetting says local news organizations have only recently begun to report how the plastics boom will forever change Pennsylvania. Even though the impact of pollution on human health is a concern to many people, she says no one is talking about the climate change impacts yet.
“For every cracker plant built, we’ll need to frack about a thousand wells every two to three years to provide feedstock. That’s a lot of climate pollution. And we haven’t heard any of our elected officials talk about this as part of a climate discussion.” The petrochemical expansion in western Pennsylvania will require an estimated 583 billion gallons of freshwater and 380 million tons of sand. “People still don’t understand what’s happening,” Fetting says.
That may be changing, though, she says.”When people see they’re turning our region into another cancer alley, it makes people sit up and say ‘what have we done?’ ‘What are we doing’?”
Keep It In The Ground
“The region’s petrochemical expansion will require an estimated 583 billion gallons of freshwater and 380 million tons of sand. When it comes to the petrochemical expansion, at least in Pennsylvania communities, “people still don’t understand what’s happening,” Fetting said.
The CIEL report lays out a road map for reducing the climate impact of plastics. It calls for stopping the use and manufacture of single use plastics; ending the construction of new oil, gas and petrochemical infrastructure; promoting zero waste communities, requiring producers of plastic goods to accept responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products; and establishing more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals that take factor in the impact plastics have on the environment.
“The underlying drivers of climate change and the plastic crises are closely linked, so the solutions are closely linked,” Carroll Muffett says. He adds that tackling single use plastics and curbing fossil fuel use are a great first step. The overwhelming proportion of plastics in our lives are unrequested and completely unavoidable,” he says. “One of the best ways to respond to the plastics crisis is to keep fossil fuels in the ground in the first place.”
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