Fact Sheet for the publication "The new Coal" by Beyond Plastic
Plastic is the new coal
Plastic produces greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its life cycle. The current target of 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 a third of global oil demand growth by 2030. At least 42 plastics plants have opened, are under construction or in the permitting process since 2019. When they come on stream, these new plastics plants could release an additional 55 million tonnes of CO2e by 2025 - equivalent to the emissions of seven more 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.
The US plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tonnes of CO2e gas emissions per year. The extraction of fracking gases in the US for plastics production at home and abroad releases at least 1.5 million tonnes 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 US 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 harmful phases of the production, use and disposal of plastics:
1. fracking for plastics
In the 1990s, the USA perfected methods with which natural gas and crude oil can be extracted from rock strata.
Fracking has significantly reduced the cost of oil and gas and increased environmental impacts. Numerous sources document the serious pollution of surface and groundwater through the release of fracking chemicals, deterioration of air quality and the triggering of earthquakes. Another by-product is plastics. Shale deposits tapped by fracking are unusually rich in ethane, methane and other gases that are particularly useful for the production of petrochemical plastics. The oversupply of fracking gases has made the USA the global engine of plastics production.
The plastics industry consumes more than 1.5 billion tonnes of fracking gases each year. With a leakage rate of 2.6 %, this fracking demand generates an estimated 36 million tonnes of CO2e-equivalent gases each year.
2. transport and processing of fracking gases
This phase of plastic production - transport and processing of fracking gases - releases at least 4.8 million tonnes of CO2e gases per year. This amount is roughly equivalent to the releases from two average-sized (500-megawatt) coal-fired power plants in 2020. Current and planned expansions may result in the release of a further 4.7 million tonnes per year by 2025, equivalent to the release from two additional power plants. It is estimated that pipelines leak approximately 0.8 % of the methane supplied to plastics plants for energy generation. According to this estimate, the plastics industry is currently responsible for an additional one million tonnes of methane leaks per year.
3. ethane gas cracking process
The central players in plastics production are cracking plants, where gases extracted through fracking are superheated until the molecules are "cracked" into new components, including ethylene. As of October 2021, there were 35 cracking facilities in the US with a total capacity of 45 million tonnes per year, an increase of 14 sites and 19 million tonnes from 2005. Five additional cracking facilities are either under construction or planned with a total additional cracking capacity of 9.1 million tonnes.
4. production of other plastic raw materials
Cracking processes are not the only engines of plastic production. Other major components come from factories that process coal, methanol, chlorine and ammonia. As with the 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 tonnes of CO2e gases annually, equivalent to the emissions of 14 average-sized coal-fired power plants in 2020. Expansion could add another 10 million tonnes by 2025, equivalent to the emissions of 5 coal-fired power plants. Emissions related to the extraction and supply of raw materials are taken into account at earlier stages.
5. polymer and additive production
Polymers are produced 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 make plastics with different properties. Polymerisation consumes a lot of energy. In total, North American polymer manufacturers (the vast majority in the USA) produced more than 60 million tonnes 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 globalised plastics industry is centred in the United States. Plastics production - exporting raw materials from the US and importing them into the US - causes the release of at least 51 million tonnes of CO2e 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 tonnes of CO2e per year by 2025, equivalent to three coal-fired power plants. This estimate does not take into account 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 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annually in buildings and landfills. This is equivalent to the CO2e of 13 average-sized coal-fired power plants in 2020.
About 25 per cent of fluorochemical gases in plastic insulation become airborne within the first year after 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 of the methods used are techniques for converting plastics into fuels through pyrolysis. Conversion into new recycled plastic products is not included.
The expansion of pyrolysis and other so-called "advanced recycling" processes has the potential to add up to 18 million tonnes of CO2e per year by 2025, equivalent to the emissions from nine coal-fired power plants in 2020.
9. incineration of municipal waste
The incineration of plastic waste in municipal waste incinerators in the US releases an estimated 15 million tonnes of CO2e 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 most important endpoints for plastic waste is the oceans. In 2018, about 15 million tonnes of plastic waste entered the oceans. Dumping and pollution is expected to increase to over 40 million tonnes 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.