The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change
OCTOBER 2021 | BEYOND PLASTICS
The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change is a comprehensive account of the United States plastics industry’s significant, yet rarely acknowledged contributions to the climate crisis. Using coal-fired power plants as a benchmark, the report examines ten stages in the creation, usage, and disposal of plastics: fracking for plastics, transporting and processing fossil fuels, gas crackers, other plastics feedstock manufacturing, polymers and additives production, exports and imports, foamed plastic insulation, “chemical recycling”, municipal waste incineration, and plastics in the water.
As of 2020, the U.S. plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of CO2e gas emissions per year. This amount is equivalent to the average emissions from 116 average-sized (500-megawatt) coal-fired power plants.
The U.S. plastics industry’s contribution to climate change is on track to exceed that of coal-fired power in this country by 2030. At least 42 plastics facilities have opened since 2019, are under construction, or are in the permitting process. If they become fully operational, these new plastics plants could release an additional 55 million tons of greenhouse gases—the equivalent of another 27 average-sized coal plants. The health impacts of these emissions are disproportionately borne by low-income communities and communities of color, making this a major environmental justice issue.
Plastics are the new coal.
Although the plastics industry has long touted plastic’s recyclability, in truth, less than 9% of plastics are recycled, and new proposals for “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling” actually have more in common with incineration—a major source of both climate emissions and harmful air pollutants. Most of these facilities spend vast amounts of energy catalyzing chemical changes designed to turn plastics into more burnable fuel. The burning of plastics made in the U.S. already releases an estimated 15 million tons of greenhouse gases each year. If we turn to these processes to handle plastic waste, the emissions impacts would be even greater.
ORGANIZING TOOLS & RESOURCES
Our hope is that this report will be used to raise awareness of the dangerous connection between plastics and climate change and to help advance solutions to this growing threat to our climate, our oceans, and our health, particularly for those in low-income communities and communities of color. To that end, we’ve put together some organizing tools and resources to help people and groups who are working to advance environmental justice and slow climate change.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
Section 1. FRACKING FOR PLASTICS
Section 2. TRANSPORTING AND PROCESSING FRACKED GASES
Section 3. ETHANE GAS CRACKERS
Section 4. OTHER PLASTICS FEEDSTOCK MANUFACTURING
Section 5. POLYMERS AND ADDITIVES PRODUCTION
Section 6. EXPORTS AND IMPORTS
Section 7. FOAMED PLASTIC INSULATION
Section 8. “CHEMICAL RECYCLING”
Section 9. MUNICIPAL WASTE INCINERATION
Section10. PLASTIC IN THE WATER
APPENDIX 1: Plastics & Climate CO2e Data (interactive spreadsheet)
|Community||State||CO2e Released (2020)|
|Houston/Baytown||Texas||20.2 million tons|
|Freeport||Texas||16.6 million tons|
|Norco/Taft||Louisiana||10.3 million tons|
|Plaquemine/St. Gabriel||Louisiana||8.6 million tons|
|Beaumont/Port Arthur||Texas||7.8 million tons|
|Lake Charles||Louisiana||7.7 million tons|
|Baton Rouge||Louisiana||6.3 million tons|
|Geismar||Louisiana||5.2 million tons|
|Point Comfort||Texas||4.8 million tons|
|Kingsport||Tennessee||4.1 million tons|
|Corpus Christi||Texas||4 million tons|
|Orange||Texas||3.3 million tons|
|Linden||New Jersey||2.7 million tons|
|Longview||Texas||2.4 million tons|
|Victoria||Texas||1.9 million tons|
|Decatur||Alabama||1.4 million tons|
|Hopewell||Virginia||1.3 million tons|
|Calvert City||Kentucky||1.27 million tons|
APPENDIX 5. MAP: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from 130 U.S. Plastics Industry Facilities
Plastic has infiltrated every aspect of our lives and the industry plans to expand production dramatically. All donations are fully tax-deductible and any amount you give will be helpful and greatly appreciated. Click here to donate or learn more about how you can support our work.