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Plastic is the new coal

Plastic generates greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its life cycle. The current target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants is eliminated by climate-warming emissions from plastics. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), petrochemicals will account for more than one-third of global oil demand growth by 2030. At least 42 plastics plants have opened, are under construction or are in the permitting process since 2019. When they come on stream, these new plastics plants could release an additional 55 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2025 - equivalent to the emissions of seven more 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

The U.S. plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million metric tons of carbon dioxide gas emissions per year. The extraction of fracking gases in the U.S. for plastics production at home and abroad releases at least 1.5 million metric tons of methane annually, which is discharged by weight.

Although the industry has long talked about the recyclability of plastics, less than 9% of plastics are currently recycled. The U.S. shipped about 1.4 billion pounds of plastic waste overseas in 2020, with the majority going to developing countries.

Summary of the 10 particularly environmentally damaging phases of the production, use and disposal of plastics:

1.      Fracking for plastics

In the 1990s, the USA perfected methods for extracting natural gas and crude oil from rock strata.

Fracking has significantly reduced the cost of oil and gas and increased environmental impacts. Numerous sources document serious pollution of surface and groundwater from the release of fracking chemicals, degradation of air quality, and the triggering of earthquakes. Another byproduct is plastics. Shale deposits developed through fracking are unusually rich in ethane, methane, and other gases that are particularly useful in the production of petrochemical plastics. The oversupply of fracking gases has made the U.S. the global engine of plastics production.

The plastics industry consumes more than 1.5 billion tons of fracked gases annually. With a leakage rate of 2.6%, this fracking demand generates an estimated 36 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent gases each year.

2.      Transportation and processing of fracking gases

This phase of plastics production - transportation and processing of fracking gases - releases at least 4.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide gases per year. This amount is roughly equivalent to the releases from two average-sized (500-megawatt) coal-fired power plants in 2020, and current and planned expansions may result in the release of an additional 4.7 million tons per year by 2025, equivalent to the releases from two additional power plants. It is estimated that pipelines leak approximately 0.8% of the methane supplied to plastics plants for energy production. According to this estimate, the plastics industry is currently responsible for an additional one million tons of methane leaks per year.

3.      Ethane gas cracking process

The central players in plastics production are cracking facilities, where gases extracted by fracking are superheated until the molecules are "cracked" into new components, including ethylene. As of October 2021, there were 35 cracking facilities in the U.S. with a total capacity of 45 million tons per year, an increase of 14 sites and 19 million tons from 2005. Five additional cracking facilities are either under construction or planned with a total additional cracking capacity of 9.1 million tons.

4.      Production of other plastic raw materials

Cracking processes are not the only engines of plastics production. Other major ingredients come from factories that process coal, methanol, chlorine, and ammonia. As with cracking processes, the climate impacts of these chemical plants are numerous.

This stage of plastics production - the manufacture of other plastic raw materials - releases more than 28 million metric tons of CO2e gases annually, equivalent to the emissions from 14 average-sized coal-fired power plants in 2020. Expansion could add another 10 million metric tons by 2025, equivalent to the emissions of 5 coal-fired power plants. Emissions associated with the extraction and supply of raw materials are accounted for in earlier phases.

5.      Polymer and additive production

The production of polymers occurs when the building blocks of plastics - hydrocarbon molecules derived from gas, coal or oil - are formed into chains called polymers. These polymers are combined in various ways to produce plastics with different properties. Polymerization consumes a lot of energy. Overall, North American polymer manufacturers (the vast majority in the U.S.) produced more than 60 million metric tons of polymers in 2021.

Many plastics are combinations of polymers and additives. A 2021 study identified more than 8,000 additives that are used in combination with polymers to make plastics and determine their properties. Some PFAS additives are greenhouse gases thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Plastic manufacturers use fluorochemicals to repel stains in textiles and as blowing agents in insulation.

6.      Exports and imports

The globalized plastics industry is centered in the United States. Plastics production - exporting raw materials from the U.S. and importing them into the U.S. - causes the release of at least 51 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent gases abroad per year, equivalent to the emissions of 25 average-sized coal-fired power plants in 2020. At an annual growth rate of 3.9%, this trade will release an additional 6 million tons of  carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2025, equivalent to three coal-fired power plants. This estimate does not include many plastic products shipped into or out of the United States.

7.      Outgassing of foamed plastic insulations

The use of blowing agents in plastic insulation releases at least 27 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually in buildings and landfills. This is equivalent to the carbon dioxide equivalent emitted by 13 average-sized coal-fired power plants in 2020.

About 25 percent of fluorochemical gases in plastic insulation enter the air within the first year of installation and continue to outgas for at least 50 years.

8.      "Chemical" recycling

Currently, the plastics industry is marketing "chemical recycling." This process refers to a method of overcoming the technical challenges of plastics recycling. Most methods used are techniques for converting plastics into fuels through pyrolysis. It does not include conversion into new recycled plastic products.

The expansion of pyrolysis and other so-called "advanced recycling" techniques has the potential to add up to 18 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2025, equivalent to the emissions from nine coal-fired power plants in 2020.

9.      Municipal waste incineration

The incineration of plastic waste in municipal solid waste incinerators in the U.S. releases an estimated 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent gases per year, equivalent to the release of 7 average coal-fired power plants in 2020. Many of the elements burned in incinerators are not monitored or regulated.

10.      Plastic in the water

One of the main endpoints for plastic waste is the oceans. In 2018, about 15 million tons of plastic waste entered the oceans. Dumping and pollution is expected to increase to over 40 million tons annually by 2025. Plastics are not biodegradable and release a variety of chemicals as well as measurable amounts of greenhouse gases. The gradual fragmentation of plastics thus has worrying implications for marine biosystems and for the climate itself.

Further facts and figures as well as literature references can be found in the publication "The new Coal".

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