"Alarming" Report Details Emissions Danger of Plastics Production and Disposal—And It's Set to Get Worse

Plastic pollution is more than a threat to our oceans and landscapes—it’s a major source of emissions. 

A new report from a number of groups, led by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), found that the emissions created by the production of plastic are a massive and unexplored source of air pollution in the world. The report, Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet (pdf), calls for “urgent, ambitious action” to solve the problem.

“At current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C,” the report reads. “With the petrochemical and plastic industries planning a massive expansion in production, the problem is on track to get much worse.”

Plastic is derived from a number of sources, including coal and salt, but the main base material comes from natural gas and crude oil. The gas or oil is distilled to separate out the chemical naphtha, a main component for plastic production. Then the compound is used in a complex, energy intensive process to make plastics. 

That process, CIEL president Carroll Muffett said in a statement, is a major and oft-ignored contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

“It has long been clear that plastic threatens the global environment and puts human health at risk,” said Muffett. “This report demonstrates that plastic, like the rest of the fossil economy, is putting the climate at risk as well.”

Priscilla Villa, a south Texas organizer with Earthworks, put the crisis in real-world terms. 

“Plastics are fueling the climate catastrophe because they’e made from oil and gas, and oil and gas pollution is the main reason climate change is rapidly accelerating,” said Villa. “Planned plastics production facilities in the Gulf Coast and Appalachia would worsen our global climate crisis while also threatening vulnerable communities with more intense storms like Hurricane Harvey.”

The warnings come as plastics production is increasing worldwide. In an article reviewing the new report, Environmental Health News laid out the numbers. 

In the fall of 2017, the American Chemistry Council estimated $164 billion in investment for 260 new or expanded petrochemical facilities in the U.S. Just one year later, that estimate was blown away—the Council reported investments of more than $200 billion in more than 330 new or bolstered facilities. 

Even getting rid of the product through conventional means isn’t a solution, said report co-author Doun Moon, a research associate with the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives. 

“Waste incineration, also referred to as Waste-to-Energy, is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions from plastic waste management, even after considering the electricity that can be generated during the process,” said Moon. “The industry’s plans to massively expand both petrochemical production and waste incineration are incompatible with the urgent need for climate mitigation.”

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With such over-arching danger to the planet and the global environment, plastic needs to be treated as a real threat, said the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s co-founder and CEO Dianna Cohen.

“Plastic pollution is an urgent global crisis, and plastic pollutes at every stage: from extraction to disposal and incinerator,” Cohen said. 

The danger to the globe, said The Guardian, can’t be overstated.

This plastic binge threatens attempts to meet the Paris climate agreement. It means that by 2050 plastic will be responsible for up to 13% of the total “carbon budget”—equivalent to 615 coal-fired power plants—says the research published on Thursday.

The “alarming” findings of the report, said Cohen, make clear that a clear break from the past and a huge shift is necessary for the planet’s survival.

“This is a decisive moment when we will no longer accept business as usual,” said Cohen. “Join us in demanding a shift in the system for the health of the Earth and all its living creatures.”

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