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Report predicts climate impact from plastics industry will outpace coal by 2030

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Beyond Plastics
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A new report says that in less than a decade, the plastics industry will contribute more to climate change than coal-fired power plants.

The report called The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change and is from Beyond Plastics, a project based at Bennington College in Vermont.

The report compiled emissions data from 10 steps of plastics production – from fracking to incineration.

To learn more, WAMC's Lucas Willard spoke with Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics, a former EPA Regional Administrator and regular WAMC Roundtable panelist.

Judith Enck:
The overall US plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases every single year. That is the equivalent to about 116 average coal fired power plants. And then as coal fired plants, thankfully, are closing around the country and petrochemical infrastructure for plastics is expanding, we calculate that the plastics industry's contribution to climate change will exceed that from coal plants by the year 2030. This is a staggering recognition.

We looked at the 10 different high impact stages of plastic production, from fracking for plastics to crackers to municipal waste incineration. now know that the greenhouse gas emissions from the entire chain of plastics production use and disposal is significant. This is an important environmental justice issue because the impacts of the plastic industry are most felt by low income communities in communities of color. Our report found that more than 90% of the climate pollution from the plastics industry occurs in just 18 communities, mostly in Texas and Louisiana.

Lucas Willard:
I wanted to ask you, Judith about the process of manufacturing plastic, because I think a lot of people understand that plastic either gets recycled, or it doesn't. And a lot of people know that it's made, it's based in petroleum, and fossil fuels. But a lot of people don't understand...you said this word cracking earlier. And I wonder if you can explain what that is, and why that has such an impact in regards to climate change.

Judith Enck:
Well, historically, plastics were made from chemicals and oil. They are now made from chemicals, and ethane, a byproduct of hydro fracking, we now have over a million hydro fracking sites all over the nation. And at those sites, they emit massive amounts of ethane into the atmosphere. A recent development that we're seeing is new pipelines being proposed from the fracking sites to carry the gas to facilities called ethane cracker facilities, which heat the gas, crack it thus it's called a cracker plant. And then that becomes the main building block of single use plastic packaging.

These ethane cracker facilities emit massive amounts of air toxics. So they're a real problem locally along with particulates, but they also emit a large amount of greenhouse gases. And so if you don't like fracking, you're definitely not going to like plastics, we think that that gas should be captured, but it should not be used to make single use plastic packaging.

Lucas Willard:
Let's talk about the timing of your report. And the plastics impact on climate change. You've had the IPCC report, you've had world governments, the United Nations talking about the emergencies of climate change and of plastic pollution. But why is the timing of this report significant and in your opinion

Judith Enck:
Well, we know that the fossil fuel industry is losing business in the electricity sector in the transportation sector, as nations move away from coal plants and oil generated power plants, and thankfully embrace energy conservation in renewable energy sources. So plastic production is the plan B for the fossil fuel industry. And unfortunately, it is not on the agenda at the upcoming United Nations cop conference in Glasgow, Scotland. And it's also not really on the agenda in Congress is congressional leaders examine climate change moves as part of President Biden's federal funding proposals.

Our goal with this report is to put the plastics climate change connection on the agenda. We know that this is going to take years, but while people are applauding the closure of coal plants, for instance, we need to be very mindful that those greenhouse gas emissions are being replaced by plastic production and disposal. So that's why we call this report the New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change. And we will be sharing it widely in Washington and in state capitals. And we believe it's urgent, if you're going to address the climate crisis to not just drive down greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and transportation but also put plastics on the agenda of important actions to address in the context of climate change.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai