Plastic Is the New Coal, Says New Report

Here’s why that’s trouble for COP26

By Abe Musselman

November 7, 2021

Close-up of brownish green plastic dinosaur with teeth bared.

Oil is going the way of the dinosaurs, a new report says. But not fast enough. | Photo by Jonas Ronnbro

Your plastic water bottle will likely spend its golden years floating around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but its life began thousands of feet underground. How it got from there to you—and why it was made in the first place—has big implications for global climate goals.

To make that plastic bottle, raw natural gas had to be pumped from beneath shale rock deposits. After it was refined to make ethane, it was piped to a facility called an ethane cracker, where steam heated the gas to about 850°C and broke apart its chemical bonds, turning ethane into ethylene. A final step braided together long chains of ethylene and chopped it into small plastic pellets called “nurdles,” which were shipped around the world to make products like grocery bags, bubble wrap, and action figures.

It’s a long journey, and every step of the way, plastic is heating the planet.

“Plastic is very much a climate change issue,” says Judith Enck, a former staffer at the EPA and visiting faculty at Bennington College. Enck’s campaign Beyond Plastics recently released a report that tallied up the greenhouse gas emissions from each step in the plastic production process, a total amount equal to 232 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. The industry is expanding, and it’s on track to release more climate-warming gases by 2030 than coal-fired power plants in the US.

As world leaders gather in Glasgow to set new targets for reducing carbon emissions, Enck worries they will overlook the growing role of plastic manufacturing in the climate crisis. “We've been working so hard to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation and transportation. The UN needs to recognize that all of those achievements run the risk of being canceled out.”

On the first day of COP26, the Biden administration released a plan to get the United States to net-zero emissions by 2050, meaning that the administration does not plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero, but it does hope to get to a point where those emissions are counterbalanced by technology or ecosystems that remove those gases. In an announcement during the Glasgow summit, the Biden administration also outlined new rules to limit methane emissions from oil and gas wells, joining about 90 other nations in an effort known as the Global Methane Pledge. 

Cutting methane emissions is important for short-term climate goals, says Rachel Cleetus, a policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Although it breaks down much more quickly than carbon dioxide, during the decade or so that it’s in the atmosphere, methane is 80 times as powerful when it comes to trapping heat.

In recent decades, oil and gas companies have sought to rebrand in part by portraying themselves as transitioning from oil to gas and its derivatives like ethane, says Cleetus. For example, recent years have seen a spate of new permits for liquified natural gas facilities, which cool the gas into liquid form and ship it to foreign markets aboard colossal tanker ships. But natural gas is about 95 percent methane. “We're not going to solve the climate crisis by making that pivot,” says Cleetus. 

Enck is concerned that a growing plastic industry will thwart progress toward eliminating emissions, despite the new rules on methane. “There should have been a major focus on plastics in [the White House’s “net-zero” strategy], but it appears to be missing,” Enck wrote in an email. 

The contribution of plastics to global warming isn't mentioned in the net-zero document, even though it's a huge—and growing—polluter. Since 2013, the United States has nearly doubled its ethane production to almost 2 million barrels per day, shipped to one of 35 existing ethane crackers (three more are in the works). China is also building more cracker plants, expanding the market for ethane abroad. 

This rapid expansion has grave implications for the climate, says Enck. For example, an ethane cracker uses so much energy that many have their own energy plants powered by gas. In 2020, crackers released the equivalent of about 70 million tons of carbon dioxide, or, as the report calculates, roughly the same as 35 coal plants would in the same period of time. 

The life cycle of plastic goods is often obscured from the public eye. “Plastics are pitched as this product that comes from nowhere and goes to nowhere,” says Steven Feit, an attorney at the Center for International and Environmental Law. “It shows up on your shelf, and as long as you put it in a recycling bin, it gets taken care of somehow.” But in 2018, only about 9 percent of plastic disposed of in the US was recycled, while 75 percent went to a landfill and 16 percent was incinerated. Just in 2020, plastic that was incinerated released about seven coal plants’ worth of greenhouse gases. Plastic that washes into the ocean vaporizes, or “off-gases” methane as sunlight, and swirling currents break it into tiny, irretrievable bits of microplastic.

The Dow Chemical Company recently announced plans for a “net-zero” ethane cracker in Alberta, Canada, that they say would funnel carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the plastics-making process into a third-party carbon-capture system. But even if it works, this would do nothing to reduce emissions from other parts of the plastic life cycle, like the methane that escapes when gas is drilled and transported, or the carbon dioxide released when their product is incinerated in the municipal waste dump.

Promises like Dow’s are just an excuse to keep making plastic, says Feit: “Plastic is a product where supply drives demand and not the other way around. You don't go to the store and say, ‘I want red wine vinegar wrapped in plastic wrap.’”

The first priority in transitioning away from plastic and the emissions it creates should be producing fewer raw materials, says Enck. “If you stop fracking, you won't have this glut of cheap gas on the market. Fracking and plastic production are connected at the hip.”