Plastics industry heats world four times as much as air travel, report finds

Emily Hudson By Emily Hudson Jun4,2024

Pollution from the plastics industry is a major force behind the heating of the planet, according to a new report from the federal government.

The industry releases about four times as many planet-warming chemicals as the airline industry, according to the paper from scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Its emissions are equivalent to those of about 600 coal plants — about three times the number that exist across the U.S.

And if plastic production remains constant, by 2050 it could burn through nearly a fifth of the Earth’s remaining carbon budget — the amount of carbon dioxide climate scientists believe can be burned without tipping the climate into unsafe territory.

The report from the national lab comes out as civil society and public health groups, plastics industry representatives and members of national governments prepare to travel to Ottawa, Canada, for the fourth meeting of the International Negotiating Committee (INC-4), which seeks to create a legally binding treaty to reduce plastics pollution.

Those negotiations are likely to be split by stark divisions. Representatives of environmental groups and countries across the Global South have called for limits on production of plastics, while the plastics industry insists that plastic pollution can be eliminated by stricter rules around recycling.

In last fall’s negotiations in Kenya, public health and environmental campaigners focused on the dangers posed by plastics — including micro- and nano-plastics — in the human body and environment.

But these negotiations left out a key part of the plastics problem, the Lawrence Berkeley researchers note: the role of plastic in climate change.

Though many plastics companies have goals to zero out their carbon emissions by mid-century, current plastics are almost exclusively made from fossil fuels, with heat and energy generated by burning fossil fuels. 

One likely area of contention at next week’s conference will be whether to focus climate efforts on making certain steps in the plastics production process more environmentally friendly or on reducing that production overall.

The researchers found that more than 75 percent of the greenhouse gasses generated by plastics are released in the steps before plastics compounds are assembled — as petroleum products are extracted, refined and converted into monomers, the building blocks of common polymers like polyethylene or polyvinyl chloride.

More than half of all plastics emissions — 57 percent — also come from just four plastic polymers: high-density polyethylene (HDOE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

The plastics industry argues that this supply chain can — and must — be rapidly cleaned up. “We expect production will continue to increase over time as demand increases over time,” Stewart Harris of the American Chemistry Council told The Hill. 

“But what that production looks like and the applications that plastic material is used in is going to change dramatically.”

Environmental campaigners argue, however, that the harmful impacts of plastic can most easily be reduced by reducing plastic production.

“While global leaders are trying to negotiate a solution to the plastic crisis, the petrochemical industry is investing billions of dollars in making the problem rapidly worse,” said Neil Tangri of the University of California at Berkeley, an advance reviewer of the report.

“We need a global agreement to stop this cancerous growth, bring down plastic production, and usher in a world with less plastic and less pollution.”

— Updated at 10:48 a.m.

Emily Hudson

By Emily Hudson

Emily is a talented author who has published several bestselling novels in the mystery genre. With a knack for creating gripping plotlines and intriguing characters, Emily's works have captivated readers worldwide.

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One thought on “Plastics industry heats world four times as much as air travel, report finds”
  1. It’s alarming to learn that the plastics industry is contributing so significantly to the heating of our planet. We must prioritize regulations and measures to curb their emissions and prevent the escalation of environmental damage.

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