The plastics industry is as dirty as 600 coal-fired power plants

As multiple nations move toward eliminating coal power to reduce carbon emissions, the plastics industry is producing enough emissions to equal more than 600 coal power plants, according to a sobering new report.

Coal is quickly being replaced in several countries by renewable clean energy sources such as wind and solar power. The United Kingdom recently went a full week without using coal for electricity for the first time since 1882 and Finland moved to ban coal power a full year earlier than scheduled as other European nations continue working toward a complete coal phaseout by 2030.

There’s an even greater sense of urgency to make the switch after a new report by the United Nations warned that one million species are at risk of extinction due to human activity and that we only have a decade to do something meaningful to prevent a mass die-off that would negatively impact human populations.

But while reducing reliance on fossil fuels for energy is a worthy goal, we should also worry about the plastics industry, which produces a far larger carbon footprint.

According to a report by the Center for International Environmental Law:

If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. By 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons—10–13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.

The report notes that all plastics start out as fossil fuels, and the increasing demand for plastics means more demand for fossil fuels.

“Global production of plastic has increased from two million metric tons (Mt) in 1950 to 380 million
Mt in 2015,” the report says. “By the end of 2015, 8,300 million Mt of virgin plastic had been produced, of which roughly two-thirds has been released into the environment and remains there in some form.”

Indeed, most plastics end up in the ocean, where it eventually gets swallowed by birds, whales and other marine species, causing mass deaths and polluting the waterways.

The incineration of plastic waste is also contributing to higher carbon emissions, so even though the world is reducing the burning of fossil fuels for energy, we are still producing tons of carbon emissions from plastic production, use and disposal.

As global reliance on fossil fuels declines and plastic production rapidly expands, that emissions impact is poised to grow dramatically in the years ahead. Yet the true dimensions of plastic’s contribution to the climate crisis remain poorly understood, creating significant uncertainties that threaten global efforts to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

In short, if we are serious about saving our planet and ourselves, we must deal with the plastics industry in addition to the fossil fuel industry. Because they really are one and the same. Both are just killing us in different ways.

Perhaps every nation should consider enacting a policy similar to a law passed by the Italian island of Capri earlier this month that bans single-use plastics. We can also all change our eating habits by using sustainable containers for take-out food as is being done in Brussels.

We can also stop buying bottled water and instead purchase steel water bottles that can be used over and over again no matter where we go. We would not only save money, we would be saving the Earth.

For too long, our world has been relying on plastics and it’s time to make a major lifestyle change before it becomes a plastic wasteland.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.
 

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