Are Plastics "The New Coal?"

 Are Plastics "The New Coal?"

An essay from The Atlantic warns that plastics might outpace fossil fuels as contributors to climate change. Plastics have even been deemed "The New Coal" by the Beyond Plastics organization for their many toxic qualities and will eclipse the climate contributions of coal-fired power plants in this country by 2030.

Why this Matters

Though plastics contribute greatly to climate change, climate policies have ignored their impact. Plastic, a form of carbon, has a growing environmental footprint driven by coal combustion and its production is one of the top-two users of energy in the manufacturing sector. Scientists still can’t account for all of the damage plastics may cause -- for example, how greenhouse gases can leak out of plastics left in the sun, or the effects of plankton consuming microplastics. What these tiny organisms ingest impacts the entire food web, and also may be altering their capacity to supply oxygen and sequester industrial carbon.

"Research into these [climate] impacts is still in its infancy," according to a report published by the Center for International Environmental Law and several other groups, "but early indications that plastic pollution may interfere with the largest natural carbon sink on the planet should be cause for immediate attention and serious concern."

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has just declared plans to allot $13.4 million to research the effects of the plastic industry on pollution and climate change. But some environmental advocates are concerned that the DOE's approach will result in projects that are just various forms of "chemical recycling," a process that melts plastic down to its constituent molecules so it can be made into new products. While this seems good in theory -- in practice, the melted plastic mostly becomes oil and gas due to technical and economic roadblocks. Basically, recycling plastic isn't a cure-all for climate. The nonprofit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives found that only 3 of the 37 chemical recycling facilities proposed in the US since 2000 are operational and none specialize in plastic-to-plastic conversion.

Anti-plastic advocates suggest alternative solutions, such as policy that phases out plastic production, like The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. The bill, if passed, would ban new petrochemical facilities.

PBS: The Plastic Problem, November 27, 2019.

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