Plastic is not just a problem for overwhelmed landfills or the marine life that ingest it. Plastic is also a huge contributor to carbon emissions, climate change and toxic pollution. But if some of the large petrochemical companies have their way, plastic production will increase dramatically in the coming years.
Cradle to grave, plastic could produce as much as 56 gigatons of carbon dioxide between now and 2050, according to a recent study — 50 times more than all the coal-fired power plants in the United States produce in a year.
Part of the reason plastic is so carbon-intensive is that it is made from fossil fuels. Historically, the building block of plastic was oil, but today it’s increasingly made from ethane, a component of natural gas.
Ethane gets vented into the atmosphere primarily at hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) sites, said Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and a visiting professor at Bennington College. A number of petrochemical companies, including Shell, Exxon and BP, want to capture this ethane and send it by pipeline to new plastic production factories called ethane crackers.
In these factories, ethane is heated to an extremely high temperature, which breaks apart the molecular bonds holding it together (hence, “cracking”), creating ethylene, Enck explains. In this form, it becomes a building block of plastic packaging.
“Because fracking has made natural gas so cheap, it's driving a massive expansion in new infrastructure for plastics and petrochemicals,” Enck said. “Creating new plastics from cracking ethane will also discourage companies from using recycled plastic in their products because the virgin plastic will be cheaper.”
Petrochemical companies know that fossil fuel demand for use in electricity generation and transportation will drop in the coming years, so they are “making a big-money bet shifting to plastic production,” Enck said. “They are counting on the world wanting more and cheaper single-use plastic packaging.”
These plans run counter to the growing trend in the US and other countries to do away with single-use plastic, including bans on plastic bags and plastic straws.
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“There's an incredible energy at the local level to reduce plastic pollution and at the same time, tax dollars are being used to promote the construction of ethane crackers and the petrochemical industry is gearing up for a major increase in investments in this petrochemical build-out,” Enck said.
Enck sees “an amazing disconnect” between the 9 million metric tons of plastic that enters the world’s oceans every year and the makers of these plastics who “have no financial responsibility for what happens after the plastic is manufactured.”
The environmental justice component of this issue also troubled Enck. Ethane cracker plants are not proposed in affluent communities, she noted, but rather in communities that are struggling economically and “are used to hosting highly polluting companies.”
“These overburdened communities have been receiving massive amounts of pollution for years … and don't seem to have elected officials that are willing to stand up for public health. So, the plan is to just keep that going,” she said.
Industry supporters pointed to the jobs new plants will create, but in reality, while they do create a lot of jobs during construction, they do not create many permanent jobs, Enck noted.
What’s more, much of this is happening without any public knowledge, Enck said. In fact, she added, “I think if you were to poll most members of Congress, especially those that don't live in the district where these ethane crackers are proposed, I can almost guarantee that they don't know that this is happening.”
Enck would like to see a moratorium on the construction of new ethane crackers until more becomes known about their impact on climate change and local toxic air emissions. “We really owe this to the communities that are hosting these facilities,” she said.
She also proposed an end to public subsidies for the petrochemical industry — not just for plastic production, but also for fossil fuel extraction — and a continued movement at the local level to ban single-use plastic packaging in order to reduce demand.
“The irony here is if there is less use of plastic packaging in the United States, I think a lot of these companies will simply export the packaging to other countries,” she noted. “But I think it's taken decades to finally get some traction on moving toward renewable energy sources and cleaner transportation choices, and then to have that almost canceled out by the proliferation of carbon emissions from ethane cracker facilities would really, really be problematic.”