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Kay Slama commentary: America must reduce its use of plastics

Summary: “Plastic is the new coal,” said an author of New Coal. “We’ve got to reduce the use of plastic if we have any chance of hitting climate change goals.”

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Plastics are pervasive in our lives. They pollute our waters, land, and oceans, and much microplastic is getting into our food and bodies. but did you know that plastics are also a major threat to our climate?

Plastic production and use currently emit at least 232 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year, the equivalent of 116 average sized coal-fired power plants. At current rates, plastic emissions are predicted to double by 2050. According to Plastic and Climate, that’s a significant proportion of the total remaining carbon budget, if we are to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C to avoid the worst of climate change.

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First, GHGs are emitted at each of each stage of the plastic lifecycle. First is fossil fuel extraction and transport. This includes methane leakage and flaring, energy consumption in the process of drilling for oil or gas and transporting it, and clearing land for well pads and pipelines.

Second is plastic refining and manufacture. This puts plastics among the most GHG-intensive industries in the manufacturing sector — and the fastest growing. The manufacture of plastic is producing significant emissions through many steps in the chemical refining processes.

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Third is the GHG from managing plastic waste. Plastic is primarily landfilled, recycled, or incinerated. Landfilling emits the least greenhouse gases on an absolute level, although it presents significant other problems. Recycling also produces moderate emissions, but at least it displaces new virgin plastic on the market. Incineration leads to very high emissions.

Last is plastic’s ongoing climate impact once it reaches our oceans, waterways, and landscape. Plastics in the ocean continually release methane and other GHGs. Plastics on our coastlines, riverbanks, and landscapes release GHG at an even higher rate. Microplastic in the oceans may also interfere with the ocean’s capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, and this is cause for serious concern.

Plastic production is subsidized by United States government, just like oil production. The plastic industry’s misnamed Alliance to End Plastic Waste will do little to end plastic waste.

High-priority actions to reduce GHGs from the plastic lifecycle include:

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  • Ending the production and use of single-use, disposable plastic, like grocery bags, bottled beverages, and packaging of most groceries and small manufactured items;
  • Stopping development of new oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure;
  • Making plastic producers responsible for the entire lifecycle of plastics;
  • Fostering the transition to zero-waste communities;
  • Adopting and enforcing ambitious targets to reduce GHG from all sectors, including plastic production. For example, a price on carbon at the source would increase the price of producing plastics, as well as other fossil fuels.

The Plastic and Climate report concludes that “Nothing short of stopping the expansion of petrochemical and plastic production and keeping fossil fuels in the ground will create the surest and most effective reductions in the climate impacts from the plastic lifecycle.” All of us need to support these solutions. This includes action by the plastics industry, policymakers, philanthropic funders, and global grassroots movements.

“Plastic is the new coal,” said an author of New Coal. “We’ve got to reduce the use of plastic if we have any chance of hitting climate change goals.”

Kay Slama is a member of the Willmar Area Climate Action Group. This commentary is based on two reports. “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet,” published by the Center for International Environmental Law in 2019, and a newer 2021 report, “New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change.”

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