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Plastic is the new coal, report finds

Recycled plastic bottles. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Recycled plastic bottles. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In the next decade, plastic will emit more climate-changing greenhouse gases than coal-fired power plants.

That’s according to a new report by the group Beyond Plastics. They’ve analyzed 10 stages of plastics production, use and disposal.

Judith Enck, a former regional Environmental Protection Agency administrator and president of Beyond Plastics, says two key changes have put plastic on track to surpass coal power plants for greenhouse gas emissions.

First, plastics that used to be made from chemicals and oil are being made from a byproduct of hydrofracking, she says. And at the same time, the U.S. has shut down or announced plans to retire 65% of coal plants.

“I think the public understands the problems with coal plants,” Enck says. “But now we need to really grasp that plastic pollution is not just a serious water quality issue.”

Plastic recycling is largely a myth: Only 8.5% of plastics get recycled. Plastic production and disposal need a place on the climate change agenda, Enck says.

The report goes into detail on emissions from hydrofracking. Large amounts of fracked waste gas are sent to ethane cracker facilities that are being built in states such as Texas and Louisiana, she says. These facilities need permits from environmental agencies to operate, so the report includes an estimate on how much greenhouse gases these facilities emit from fracking.

Enck believes the report may underestimate the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from plastic because the organization can’t measure the impact of some sources such as foamed plastic insulations in people’s homes or the amount of plastic burned at cement kilns.

“The fossil fuel industry knows that they’re losing money from burning fossil fuels at coal plants. They’re going to lose money from petroleum sales because more and more people are shifting to electric cars investments in mass transit,” she says. “And so plastic production is the Plan B for the fossil fuel industry.”

Beyond Plastics is also tracking how much this pollution occurs in communities of color.

The report found 90% of climate pollution reported by the plastics industry to the EPA occurs in communities mostly in Texas and Louisiana. The impacted areas are low-income communities and largely communities of color, she says.

“Quite frankly, this is one thing that inspired Beyond Plastics to do this report,” she says, “because we are extremely concerned about the health impacts in communities of color that are already shouldering an overburdened level of air pollution.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Plastics Industry Association wrote that plastic is a more sustainable form of packaging compared to alternatives such as cotton, glass or metal.

“Plastic is lighter and more durable than alternatives and reduces the overall weight of products. Lighter products require less fuel to transport,” the spokesperson wrote. “Reduced weight translates to a smaller environmental footprint by lowering energy use and carbon emissions.”

Lynn Menegon produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.