“The fossil fuel industry isn’t in the oil business,” a college professor once told me. “They’re in the money-making business.” These days, that money-making business is all about plastic. With the transition to renewable energy underway, the fossil fuel industry sees the writing on the wall for the coal-fired power plants and gas-guzzling vehicles that have long lined their pockets. But they have a ‘Plan B’ to continue profiting from the extraction, processing and burning of fossil fuels. Plan B is plastics, and it’s bad news for the climate.
Plastic is in our cars, electronics, clothes, food and baby toys. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a single place on Earth – from the Mariana Trench to the peak of Mt. Everest and the remote corners of the Arctic – that’s free of it. But it has also earned the name 'the new coal,' due to its unfortunate role replacing that ubiquitous 19th century technology as a major greenhouse gas contributor. As Beyond Plastics founder Judith Enck puts it: “The hard-won reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants are being quickly canceled out by a new universe of climate-warming emissions from plastics.” In other words, even as we gain green ground in high-profile energy sectors, fossil fuels aren’t going away. They are shifting into plastics.
If plastic were a country, it would already be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world. By 2030, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts petrochemicals, from which plastics are made, will be responsible for more than one-third of the growth in global oil demand, and by 2050, nearly half. Here’s another way of thinking about plastic’s climate impact: On our current trajectory, plastic production will be responsible for climate-warming pollution equivalent to 295 coal-fired power plants by 2030. And by 2050, the Center for International Environmental Law says emissions from plastics will have eaten up 10-13% “of the entire remaining carbon budget.”
How can plastics produce all these greenhouse gasses? When we hear “plastic pollution,” most of us probably think of bags littering beaches and bottle caps choking marine life. But plastic harms our planet before it ever reaches our lands and waters. It starts with extracting and transporting the fossil fuels that are used to make plastics. Then there’s refining and manufacturing those fuels into plastics and transporting plastic products (often from overseas). Finally, we must manage plastic waste at the end of its usefulness. All told, plastic consumes fossil fuels at every stage of its life cycle.
And plastics don’t just alter our climate. They also harm the health and wellbeing of people around the world in other ways. Plastics contain thousands of additives meant to impart qualities like heat resistance and color. But at least 144 of these commonly included chemicals are hazardous to human health, causing such illnesses as endocrine disruption and cancer. Many more of the additives have not even been studied, yet the average person eats a credit card’s worth of plastic each week.
And, like most environmental issues, plastic pollution doesn't affect everyone equally. In the United States, plastics are primarily manufactured and disposed of in low-income communities and communities of color. According to a 2021 report from Beyond Plastics, “More than 90% of the climate pollution that the plastics industry reports to [the Environmental Protection Agency] occurs in 18 communities, mostly along the coastlines of Texas and Louisiana. People living within three miles of these petrochemical clusters earn 28% less than the average U.S. household and are 67% more likely to be people of color.” On a global scale, we might consider that wealthy countries use up to 20 times more plastic per capita than developing economies, but ship much of our trash overseas to be burned or to waste away in untended pits. In 2021, the United States shipped 259 million kilograms of plastic waste to non-OECD countries and 85 million kilograms to Mexico alone.
To protect our communities, ecosystems and climate from plastic, we need to prevent its creation in the first place; we cannot address our plastic waste problem by processing, pulverizing, dissolving or burning what already exists. The facade of recycling as a silver bullet has crumbled; less than 9% of plastics are recycled. We should also keep in mind that while it’s difficult today to imagine life without it, plastic wasn’t always ubiquitous. When companies like Carbide first developed plastics in the 1920s to use up their industrial byproducts, no one wanted to buy them. The emerging industry had to manufacture demand by inventing new applications for plastic and teaching manufacturers how to use their products.
The good news is, we have the tools to stop producing so much of this thing we don’t really need. One mechanism is producer responsibility. Producer responsibility laws incentivize companies to reduce the non-recyclable and non-reusable plastics they generate in the first place by holding them accountable for collecting and processing (read: cleaning up) their products at the end of their lives. Simply banning plastics (or at least certain types of plastic, like single-use) or capping the amount of new plastics that can be produced each year, and gradually ratcheting that cap down to zero, are also powerful tools.
We can also levy fees on materials that aren’t easily recyclable and on product designs that complicate waste separation; tax the disposal of plastics in landfills; and prohibit the landfilling of recoverable waste. We can implement reuse and refill programs and craft policies that disincentivize planned obsolescence (which is when producers design products to break or wear out on purpose). Restricting the hazardous chemicals added to many plastics would make plastics more easily recyclable as well as safer. Another popular idea is restricting the export of plastic waste, so that wealthier countries stop dumping their trash on other nations. If our waste piles up in our own communities instead of overseas and out of sight, we might be more incentivized to address the source of the problem.
We have a lot of solutions. But it’s important to consider that because rich countries already use so much plastic, the petrochemical industry plans to expand its markets primarily in poorer nations. In other words, although European countries, Korea, Japan, the United States and other big consumers need to reduce consumption and increase our recycling of plastics, according to the IEA, “the impact these efforts can have on demand for petrochemicals is far outweighed by sharply increasing plastic consumption in emerging economies.” This means we need coordinated global action as well as state and national policies to limit plastic production.
As fossil fuel companies look for ways to sell more oil, gas and coal even as we electrify and transition to renewable energy, they’re pivoting to selling us more plastic than ever. What can you do about it? Sure, you can buy a reusable water bottle and dishwasher detergent in a cardboard box. But more importantly, you can talk about plastics’ climate impact with your family, friends and elected representatives. Find out if your state is considering a bottle bill this legislative session like the one in Virginia and write to your representative in support. On the national level, ask your U.S. representative to support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, federal legislation that would comprehensively address the plastic crisis. You can also add your name to this petition in support of a global, legally binding plastics treaty that mandates production reductions for governments and encompasses the entire plastics life cycle. We have a big problem on our hands, but we also have the solutions. Now, we just need to vote them into existence.