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SOURCE: Yale e360

DATE: December 19, 2019

SNIP: As public concern about plastic pollution rises, consumers are reaching for canvas bags, metal straws, and reusable water bottles. But while individuals fret over images of oceanic garbage gyres, the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries are pouring billions of dollars into new plants intended to make millions more tons of plastic than they now pump out.

Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Saudi Aramco are ramping up output of plastic — which is made from oil and gas, and their byproducts — to hedge against the possibility that a serious global response to climate change might reduce demand for their fuels, analysts say. Petrochemicals, the category that includes plastic, now account for 14 percent of oil use, and are expected to drive half of oil demand growth between now and 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says. The World Economic Forum predicts plastic production will double in the next 20 years.

And because the American fracking boom is unearthing, along with natural gas, large amounts of the plastic feedstock ethane, the United States is a big growth area for plastic production. With natural gas prices low, many fracking operations are losing money, so producers have been eager to find a use for the ethane they get as a byproduct of drilling.

America’s petrochemical hub has historically been the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, with a stretch along the lower Mississippi River dubbed “Cancer Alley” because of the impact of toxic emissions. Producers are expanding their footprint there with a slew of new projects, and proposals for more. They are also seeking to create a new plastics corridor in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, where fracking wells are rich in ethane.

Since 2010, companies have invested more than $200 billion in 333 plastic and other chemical projects in the U.S., including expansions of existing facilities, new plants, and associated infrastructure such as pipelines, says the American Chemistry Council, an industry body. While some are already running or under construction, other projects await regulators’ approval.

“If even a quarter of these ethane cracking facilities are built, it’s locking us into a plastic future that is going to be hard to recover from.” [ Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and a former regional director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]

The impact goes beyond the waste problem that is the focus of public concern. Although plastic is often seen as a separate issue from climate change, both its production and afterlife are in fact major sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Global emissions linked to plastic — now just under 900 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually — could by 2030 reach 1.3 billion tons, as much as almost 300 coal-fired power plants, the Center for International Environmental Law found. If output grows as planned, plastic would use up between 10 and 13 percent of the carbon emissions allowable if warming is to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the center reported.

Those emissions come from nearly every stage of plastic’s life. First, there is the energy-intensive nature of oil and gas extraction. Then, ethane cracking requires enormous amounts of power, with a concomitantly large greenhouse gas footprint. The Shell plant has a permit allowing it to emit as much carbon dioxide annually as 480,000 cars.

An estimated 12 percent of all plastic is incinerated, releasing more greenhouse gases, as well as dangerous toxins, including dioxins and heavy metals. Industry is promoting an expansion of incineration in waste-to-electricity plants, which it describes as a source of renewable energy. What’s more, new research suggests plastic in the environment releases greenhouse gases as it degrades — a potentially vast and uncontrollable source of emissions.

[W]hile industry points to a lack of waste management infrastructure in poor countries as a cause of the ocean plastic problem, Americans use dozens of times more plastic per capita than Indians, five times more than Indonesians, and nearly three times as much as Chinese.

In addition to its climate impacts, petrochemical production can release airborne toxins such as 1,3-Butadiene, benzene, and toluene, causing cancer and other illnesses. Many plants are in poor areas, often communities of color, although as the fracking connection drives expansion into rural areas, poor white communities will likely be increasingly affected, too.

The industry’s critics fear the expansion of supply is likely to guarantee additional plastic usage regardless of whether consumers want it. Once new ethane cracking plants are built, producers will want to keep them running to maximize revenue.