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Plastics: the New Coal

The devastating effects of coal-fired power stations on both environmental and human health means they are being decommissioned at an impressive rate: 65% of US coal-fired power stations are now shut. However, there’s a new much greater polluter ready to take the place of coal: plastic.

Commercial interests shifting away from coal-fired power stations means that there is a hugely positive shift towards more sustainable sources of energy such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric alternatives. Our ever-growing dependence on plastics throughout our lives is, however, limiting our capacity to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. By 2030, the plastics industry in the US alone will overtake emissions from coal-fired power stations. The problem is so widespread that if the worldwide plastics industry were a country, it’d be the fifth largest overall polluter.

The figures are difficult to track down and even less widely published due to the nebulous and complex nature of the plastics industry. Shale gas, fracked in Texas, exported to India to make plastic pellets which are processed in China for products shipped to Europe ensures a supply chain with minimal industrial responsibility and minimal regulatory oversight. These complexities mean the true nature of the problem is hard to comprehend and even harder to accurately and fully document: the estimate is that less than half of the plastic industries emissions are reported.

To provide a breakdown of the figures that are known, here are some of the facts relating to the U.S. (one example where we have data):

  • Foamed plastic insulation produces more than 27 million tons of Greenhouse Gases (GHG), more than 13 coal-fired power stations

  • US municipal waste incineration emits at least 15 million tons of GHG, more than 7 coal-fired power stations

  • Ethane gas cracker facilities – the first step in the transformation of ethane gas into plastics - release at least 70 million tons of GHG annually in the US, more than 35 coal-fired power stations

  • US exports and imports of first stage plastic production products releases over 51 million tons of GHG, more than 25 coal-fired power stations.

What can we do to help with this overwhelming problem? We need to reduce our addiction to plastics in all its forms: reduce single use plastic, refill wherever possible, reuse unavoidable plastics, and call on policy makers to commit to reducing plastics across society.


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