Plastics are expected to contribute more to climate change than coal-fired plants in the next decade, a new report by the American environmental organization Beyond Plastics.
As the world shifts away from oil and gas, fossil fuel companies are turning to plastics in an effort to preserve their bottom line, with dozens of new petrochemical installations planned in North America alone.
The change could cause the US plastics industry to release approximately 272 million tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of approximately 59 million cars. About 70 percent of the plastic used in Canada comes from the US, according to a 2019 study commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada.
The plastics industry is already a major contributor to Canada’s domestic emissions. An investigation of National Observer of Canada in the country’s top greenhouse gas emitters found that three plastics and petrochemical factories, two in Alberta and one in Ontario, collectively emitted about 5.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2019, and petrochemical companies have recently announced plans to further expand its Canadian manufacturing capacity.
“A lot of people don’t fully understand how plastic is closely related to climate change,” said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics. “The petrochemical industry has found a new market for fossil fuels, plastics, and has big plans to expand the plastics infrastructure which, in turn, will dramatically increase emissions.”
It is a problem that has received minimal attention from politicians and businesses. While some countries, including Canada, are beginning to address plastic pollution, few have focused on the industry’s climate impacts. It is a gap reflected in the minimal attention expected to be given to the industry at the upcoming COP26 climate conference, he said.
The conference on climate change, also known as COP, short for Convention of the Parties, brings the world together to conclude agreements to reduce global warming. It has taken place since 1995. The talks bring together legislators, scientists, environmental activists, climate experts and the media from the 197 member countries of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change to set and work towards global climate change goals. This year, COP26 will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31 to November 12.
The report, which was not peer-reviewed, looked at emissions data that petrochemical and fossil fuel companies provide to US federal agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Commerce. . It assessed the environmental impacts of plastics throughout their entire life cycle, from the extraction of fossil fuels to the disposal of plastic waste.
Most plastic products are “virgin” plastics, which means they are produced from natural gas, oil, or coal. Despite decades of promises from plastic manufacturers, more than 90 percent of it is never recycled, according to the United Nations Environment Program.
Plastics produce emissions throughout their life cycle, from “fracking to cracking and incineration,” Enck explained.
Most plastics made in North America are produced from ethane, a type of gas typically extracted through fracking, which then “breaks” or breaks down into other chemicals under high temperatures and pressures to create chemical constituents for plastics. Many of these raw materials are exported for processing abroad. Both processes generate significant amounts of GHG and other environmental pollutants, the report noted.
Plastics are expected to contribute more to #Climate Change than coal-fired power plants in the next decade, according to a new report from the US environmental organization Beyond Plastics.
While Canada doesn’t have as much data available to researchers as the US, Ashley Wallis, a plastics activist at Oceana Canada, estimates that Canada’s plastics industry has a similar emissions profile.
The study also notes that incineration and so-called “chemical recycling” generate significant emissions. Chemical recycling is an umbrella term for a set of new technologies being developed by the plastics industry that aims to break old plastic into its constituent parts. It has been heavily criticized by environmental groups, many of whom say it doesn’t work.
“This whole energy-intensive process (is) going to give us more single-use plastic packaging, plastic bags, straws, Styrofoam, much of which is dumped and into surface waters and ultimately , to the ocean, “he said.
However, industry advocates say these concerns are overblown and that North American companies should increase production.
“There are people who think that plastics are materials of the past, when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth,” said Bob Masterson, president of the Chemical Industry Association of Canada (CIAC), the lobbying association Canada’s largest petrochemical company, in an October interview. “The demand for plastics is growing between one and a half and two times the world GDP.”
Whether the plastics industry has played a role in this growth is a “philosophical question,” he said.
Beginning in the 1950s, plastics manufacturers largely commercialized the widespread use of plastics, particularly harmful single-use plastics, while aggressively lobbying against government regulations. An investigation from last year by National Observer of Canada It found that these efforts continue today, with the CIAC aggressively lobbying against a set of new federal laws that could, in the future, regulate plastic production.
Still, Enck cautioned that not enough is being done to force the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries to cut their emissions.
“The fossil fuel industry sees plastics as its Plan B. There is no Plan B for the rest of us – we are in a climate crisis,” he said. “If we have any hope of effectively reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the production, use and disposal of plastics must be on the agenda.”