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US Plastics Production to Outpace Coal in Driving Climate Change by 2030

Beyond Plastics says the report's estimates are conservative; many emissions remain uncounted because current regulations do not require the industry to report them.

Plastics are on track to contribute more climate change emissions than coal plants by 2030, according to a new report by Beyond Plastics at Vermont’s Bennington College. As fossil fuel companies seek to recoup falling profits, they are increasing plastics production and cancelling out greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions gained from the recent closures of 65 percent of the country’s coal-fired power plants.

Conducted by Material Research on behalf of Beyond Plastics, The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change analyzes never-before-compiled data from ten stages of plastics production, usage and disposal and finds that the US plastics industry is releasing at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year — the equivalent of 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

In June, the US Plastics Pact unveiled an aggressive national strategy to ensure all plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. But in the meantime, conventional plastics production shows no signs of slowing down: In 2020, the plastics industry’s reported emissions increased by 10 million tons of GHGs over 2019. According to the report, construction is currently underway on another 12 plastics facilities, and 15 more are planned — altogether these expansions may emit more than 40 million more tons of GHGs annually by 2025.

“The fossil fuel industry is losing money from its traditional markets of power generation and transportation. 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,” said Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Administrator and President of Beyond Plastics.

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In addition to accelerating climate change, plastic pollutes water, air, soil, wildlife, and health — particularly in low-income communities and communities of color. The US plastics industry reported releasing 114 million tons of greenhouse gases nationwide in 2020. 90 percent of its reported climate change pollution occurs in just 18 communities where residents earn 28 percent less than the average US household and are 67 percent more likely to be people of color. In addition to greenhouse gases, these facilities also emit massive amounts of particulates and other toxic chemicals into the air, threatening residents’ health.

What the industry reports is less than half of what it actually releases, according to the report. An examination of data from federal agencies including the US Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce and Department of Energy found a severe undercounting of plastics’ climate impacts. In addition to the 114 million tons of GHGs the industry reported releasing in 2020, Material Research identified another 118 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from other stages, the equivalent of more carbon dioxide than that of 59 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

Beyond Plastics asserts that the report’s estimates are conservative.

“This report represents the floor, not the ceiling, of the US plastics industry’s climate impact,” noted Jim Vallette, president of Material Research and the report’s author. “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.”

As Congress finalizes federal spending bills and the United Nations prepares to meet for COP26 in Glasgow next month, their failure to acknowledge and act to reduce plastics’ contribution to climate change threatens to undermine global climate-change-mitigation efforts. Nearly 1,000 companies have already adopted 1.5°C-aligned, science-based targets — but governments must now do their part, and work to provide clarity for companies that are ready to accelerate their climate action with equally ambitious policies and incentives. Without both sectors working in tandem, the majority of sustainability experts are pessimistic about our ability to avoid the effects of catastrophic climate change.

“The scale of the plastics industry’s greenhouse gas emissions is staggering, but it’s equally concerning that few people in government or in the business community are even talking about it. That must change quickly if we hope to remain within the 1.5°C global temperature increase scientists have pinpointed as critical to avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change,” Enck said.

Read the full report — including insight into the 10 stages when plastics emit significant GHGs and analysis of the plastics industry that has never been made available to the public — at