Opinion

Fossil-Fuel Greed: As Coal Power Plants Shut Down, Plastics Production Intensifies

Plastic water bottles baled for waste separation. (istock)

Two crises we refuse to address with any sense of urgency — our addiction to fossil fuels and our overreliance on plastics — are conspiring to worsen the climate crisis and, thus, life on this planet. It is all being done so the barons of our extractive capitalist economy can pad their offshore, or South Dakota, bank accounts.

New research connects the climate crisis and plastics pollution in a way that further illustrates our petroleum problem. We will likely shrug our collective shoulders and then grouse about gasoline prices.

Two of the main drivers of the climate crisis, oil and natural gas, are also instrumental in the manufacturing of plastics — much of which is unnecessary, such as wrapping hard-boiled eggs, bananas, potatoes, and cucumbers in petroleum straightjackets.

Plastics are on track to contribute more climate-change emissions than coal power plants by 2030, according to a report published this month. As fossil-fuel companies seek to recoup falling profits, they are increasing plastic production and canceling out greenhouse-gas reductions gained from the recent closure of 65 percent of the country’s coal-fired power plants.

The report, compiled by Beyond Plastics, a nationwide project based at Bennington College in Vermont, analyzed data on the various stages of plastics production, usage, and disposal and found that the U.S. plastics industry is releasing at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, the equivalent of 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

Last year the plastics industry’s reported emissions increased by 10 million tons, to 114 million tons of greenhouse gases nationwide. Construction is underway on 12 new plastics facilities, and 15 more are planned — altogether this expansion could emit up to 40 million more tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2025.

“The fossil fuel industry is losing money from its traditional markets of power generation and transportation,” Beyond Plastics president Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, is quoted in a press release touting the recent study. “They are building new plastics facilities at a staggering clip so they can dump their petrochemicals into plastics. This petrochemical buildout is cancelling out other global efforts to slow climate change.”

For the defenders of the unsustainable status quo — many of the same people who call journalists enemy of the people and health professionals liars and accuse educators of teaching hate — jobs in the petroleum/plastics sector matter and must be protected. The idea of retraining people to work in an industry that doesn’t pollute, degrade public health, and accelerate the climate crisis is embraced in the same manner masks have been.

The fact petroleum pollution and climate change impact low-income communities and people of color more substantially makes white nationalists giddy — even if they live in one of the impacted communities — and doesn’t move the compassion needle in corporate boardrooms.

Ninety percent of the U.S. plastics industry’s reported climate-change pollution occurs in just 18 communities where residents earn 28 percent less than the average household and are 67 percent more likely to be people of color, according to Beyond Plastics research.

The petroleum-based industry is also underreporting its polluting. An analysis by Material Research of data from the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce, and Department of Energy found the U.S. plastics industry reports less than half of what it actually releases. The Maine-based firm identified another 118 million tons of emissions from the life stages of plastics that were released in 2020.

“This report represents the floor, not the ceiling, of the U.S. plastics industry’s climate impact,” said Jim Vallette, president of Material Research and the lead author of Beyond Plastics’ recent report. “Federal agencies do not yet count many releases because current regulations do not require the industry to report them. For example, no agency tracks how much greenhouse gas is released when plastic trash is burned in cement kilns, nor when methane leaks from a gas processing plant, nor when fracked gas is exported from Texas to make single-use plastics in India.”

The report’s breakdown of the life cycle of plastics is sobering. All this pollution so a few can profit is making us and the planet sick.

Hydrofracking of plastics feedstock releases methane, a powerful climate pollutant. By 2025, methane releases could reach 45 million tons annually.

Transporting and processing fracked gas emits an estimated 4.8 million tons of methane each year, and the industry’s planned expansion would add 4.7 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.

Ethane gas cracker facilities release at least 70 million tons of climate emissions every year. The industry’s 35 cracker facilities release as much greenhouse gas as 35 coal-fired power plants. Two new facilities are nearing completion in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Beaver County, Pa. Three others are planned in Ohio, Louisiana, and Texas.

Other plastics feedstock manufacturing emits 28 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.

Polymers and additives production emits at least 14 million tons of climate emissions every year.

Exports and imports of plastic feedstocks, resins, and products emit at least 51 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. More than 40 percent of plastic resins made in North America are exported, and countries including India and China are building new crackers to make plastics from feedstocks extracted in the United States.

Foamed plastic insulation emits more than 27 million tons of extremely potent greenhouse gases annually.

“Chemical Recycling,” a term used by the plastics industry to describe the processing of plastic waste into fuel, has barely begun, but by 2025, new capacity could cause the release of 18 million tons of greenhouse gases each year.

Municipal waste incineration of plastic waste emits at least 15 million tons of climate emissions annually.

The fossil-fuel industry’s ravenous greed is fueling our demise, and far too many of us don’t care.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

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  1. Your exquisitely perfect article, for some reason, made me recall a line from the long ago movie, THE GRADUATE, when the fat cat businessman tells the young graduate, Dustin Hoffman, “ I’ve got one word for you young man,…..Plastics” ….We are doomed…….

  2. As we at home do our small part and meticulously save up our plastic film to drop off at the box stores, and save up our styrofoam to drop off at the RIRRC, and carefully choose products that can be recycled in our blue bins, and walk away from purchases that cannot be and will last forever in the landfill, the plastic industry generates more and more plastic……….Its astounding.

  3. At least it makes us feel so not utterly criminal , even though our whole lifestyle, mine included, is contributing to the planets demise.

  4. We need the state to adopt a statewide ban of single-use plastic bags, utensils, styrofoam cups and containers, rather then expect all 39 cities and towns to adopt their own ordinances. But make it so that any municipality can adopt even more restrictive ordinances if they choose to. Plastics are a forever pollutant. Just because you have taken this stuff to a collection spot does not necessarily mean that it will not end up in a landfill. As plastic degrades it becomes very tiny pieces which eventually end up in fresh water and our oceans. Marine creatures eat it but cannot digest it or expell it. They starve to death with full stomachs and this works it’s way up the food chain.

  5. Oh, yes, Jay, totally agree. I know the shaky eventualities of the products at the recycling end of the plastic packaging, and, I am sickeningly aware of the micro plastic problems. Agreed that its the beginning of the production process that needs to be focused on. How to make such a monumental change in the fossil fuel industry? How to change consumers expectations as to the availability of produce that is not locally grown, and doesn’t really require such packaging?

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