Plastics everywhere, what about emissions?

How much plastics come with your spaghetti bolognese and what are the emissions in those plastic wrappings?
29 November 2021

Interview with 

Judith Enck, Bennington College


Waste plastic bottles


Plastic has become so ubiquitous in our lives, particularly in wrapping many of our essential food items in the supermarkets. But is there a hidden emissions side to all this single-use plastic we use to preserve our food? Verner Viisainen found out by taking a trip to his local supermarket before talking to Judith Enck of Bennington College about a new bombshell report looking at the emissions of plastics production.

Verner - On my way home from workt, I go into my local supermarket in the centre of Cambridge to pick up some ingredients for my dinner. Tonight I'm planning to make some spaghetti bolognaise. From my shopping list, I need some mince, fresh tomatoes, carrots, garlic, onions, celery, and of course some spaghetti. Let's see what I can find. As I wonder around the vegetable aisle I found my first ingredient. It's some celery and some plastic. I then find my next ingredient. Carrots and plastic. Next to them is some tomatoes, also nicely wrapped in plastic. Some onions, still plastic. My final vegetable is garlic wrapped in a plastic fleece. Now that I've got all the vegetables, I come around the corner to look for my mince. Every single one is wrapped in plastic. Finally, the pasta aisle has me looking for my spaghetti on the bottom shelf. Spaghetti and plastic. It's a plastic full house. All this plastic packaging has really got me thinking, can we live without plastic? Would using less plastic reduce my carbon footprint? Could cutting my plastic consumption help address the climate crisis? David Attenborough opened our eyes globally to the challenges presented by plastic pollution and the effect it has on our marine ecosystems.

David Attenborough - "We hoped that 'Blue Planet 2' would open people's eyes to the damage that we are doing to our oceans."

Verner - In fact, we release 15 million metric tons of plastic every year into our oceans. That's equivalent to the mass of more than a million double decker buses. That's the only issue with plastic, right? That we produce too much of it and it has to go somewhere, so we end up with a lot of waste. Well, no, not according to Judith Enck and her new bombshell of a report.

Judith - What a lot of people may not realize is the intimate connection between plastic production and climate change. So my organization 'Beyond Plastics' issued a new report called 'The New Coal:  Plastics and Climate Change' where we detail the connection between plastics and greenhouse gas emissions.

Verner - And what did you find exactly in terms of the emissions from plastics?

Judith - It is significant. Overall, the report found that the U.S. plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere every single year which is the equivalent of the greenhouse gas emissions coming out of 116 average sized coal fired power plants. Then we looked ahead as coal power plants continue to close and the plastics manufacturing infrastructure expands in the United States. The plastics industry's contribution to climate change will exceed that of coal plants in the United States by 2030. We found that plastics is the fossil fuel industry's plan B.

Verner - How did you go about calculating the emissions?

Judith - Most of the data actually comes from the plastics industry and is reported to federal agencies. We relied a lot on existing data. We just did the hard work of pulling it all together.

Verner - So could you go through the different steps and outline the emissions associated with each and how they come about?

Judith - You have to look at production use and disposal. We looked first at fracking, basically it's a new cheap way to access gas. What happens at fracking sites is large amounts of water and chemicals in sand are injected underground to shake up the underground area. Gas is released through fishers in bedrock, the gas is brought up to the surface and then captured as an electricity source. Part of that process includes flaring of ethene into the atmosphere and ethene is a potent greenhouse gas. Flaring it is not good, but what we're seeing in some select areas is capturing that ethene and sending it by pipeline to these ethene cracker facilities. That's why there's such an increase in the use of plastic in the United States, it's because of hydrofracking. On the fracking step, the amount is about 36 million tons of greenhouse gases a year, that's roughly equivalent to the release of 18 average size coal fired power plants. Then the real big one we examined was ethane crackers, these are central players of plastic production, where fracked gas is superheated until the molecules crack into new components. So you take the waste gas, you send it by new pipelines to these newly constructed ethane cracker plants, and they release roughly 70 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2020. That's the equivalent to the release of 35 average size coal fired power plants. However, the key thing on this point is that major expansion of these facilities is planned and we think that by the year 2025, we'll be looking at 42 million additional tons of greenhouse gases, which is the equivalent to 21 coal fired power plants. We then looked at exports and imports. The ongoing plastic build-out in the United States is not just for US consumption, there are these very large tankers. A tremendous amount of ethylene gas is shipped by tanker to cracker facilities in India, China in Europe, right after it's extracted from beneath the state of Texas, and that is all to create single use plastic packaging.

Verner - So how'd you attribute these emissions to plastic, if it seems that the ethane is a byproduct of getting this gas out of the ground for electricity?

Judith - Well, because the ethane that is captured and sent to ethane cracker facilities is to create more single use plastics. We're not saying in the report that all of hydrofracking is associated with plastic production, because as noted a lot of it is used for electricity generation, but there's this unknown element of fracking that links it to plastic production and because there's a glut of fracked gas on the market, we're seeing more and more of this gas being used to make plastics.

Verner - Can you make plastics from other fossil fuels?

Judith - Yes. Historically plastic was made from chemicals and oil, and now it's made from chemicals and fracked gas.

Verner - So any fossil fuels can be turned into plastic one way or another.

Judith - Yes and oil is a problem as well. Plastic production and fossil fuels are attached at the hip. You don't have one without the other.


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