Plastic Industry Set to Outpace Coal Emissions by 2030

Plastic Industry Set to Outpace Coal Emissions by 2030

While burning coal remains a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, another industry is set to outpace it: plastic. A new report from Bennington College and Beyond Plastics estimates the plastic industry emits over 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 116 coal-fired power plants.

Why this Matters

Coal production in 2020 hit a 50-year low and despite its rise in use this year, experts suggest the fossil fuel may be reaching the end of its era. But the benefits of this shift may be undermined by a ramping up in the plastic industry. More than 12 plastic production plants are currently under construction, with 15 more in the pipeline.

Plastic Pollutes

The report found that US petrochemical facilities producing plastics are overrepresented in low-income communities of color, 18 of which are subject to 90% of the industry's pollution. Also, because the US doesn't require the plastic industry to report its emissions and air pollution, the government doesn't have a clear sense of its impacts.

"The scale of the plastics industry's greenhouse gas emissions is staggering, but it's equally concerning that few people in government or in the business community are even talking about it," Judith Enck, the president of Beyond Plastics and a former EPA regional administrator, told Reuters.

The End of Coal?

While coal production has been on a downward trend, it spiked this year. The Energy Information Administration suspects the uptick is an anomaly, as coal-fired plant shutdowns and widespread natural gas use will drive down coal production long-term.

Greenpeace: Wasteminster - A Downing Street Disaster, May 17, 2021.

The Story of Stuff Project: The Story of Plastic, April 21, 2021.

Union of Concerned Scientists: Everything to Know About Coal (in Under 3 Minutes), January 4, 2018.