The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet

Plastic has been getting a lot of negative press lately.

It’s killing marine life, forming vortexes in the ocean, and being burned instead of recycled. But until recently, most of the attention has focused on plastic pollution – the waste that turns up after a product has served its purpose.

Now that’s changed- the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has recently released “Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet;” two reports that show us the consequences of plastic across its entire lifecycle. The first, Plastic & Health, explores human health impacts, while the second Plastic & Climate, tackles greenhouse gas emissions.

For the first time, we know the full scope of plastic’s impact – and it’s not looking good.

FracTracker is proud to partner with CIEL and several other organizations, including Earthworks, 5 Gyres, TEJAS, UPSTREAM, GAIA, Exeter University, and Environmental Integrity Project to release these reports.

Access the full reports and executives summaries here:

 

You know, now what?

These reports make it clear: the impacts of plastic are serious, and they’re everywhere. We have the evidence to justify an immediate global move away from our disposable, single-use lifestyle. Tackling this toxic crisis will require action across all levels of society- corporations must consider the full life cycle of their products, policy makers must enact plastic reduction measures, and of course, industry needs to rectify its toxic impacts. Eager to encourage these entities to take action, the FracTracker team is committed to doing our own part to solve this plastics problem, and we hope that it inspires individuals, companies, community leaders, and politicians to join in.

Here’s what we’re doing to help the world #BreakFreeFromPlastic:

1. Continue working towards a world free from oil and gas.

Since over 99% of plastic is made from oil and gas, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the only way to eliminate all of plastic’s toxic impacts. Plastic & Climate found that extracting and transporting oil and gas for plastic production releases over 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. There are many opportunities for these releases to occur, including from methane leakage and flaring, the drilling process, deforestation of forests for pipelines and well pads, and emissions from truck traffic.

Pipeline construction causes deforestation, releasing carbon stored in trees and preventing further carbon sequestration

The FracTracker team will continue to study, map, and analyze the risks of this industry to encourage both a switch to renewable energy and a movement away from plastic production.

3. Expose the risks of the fracking-driven plastics boom in the Gulf Coast & Ohio River Valley

Unconventional technology has opened up access to large reserves of natural gas liquids, such as ethane, and plastic manufacturing is one way to increase demand for this glut. In fact, the oil and gas industry is hoping to increase demand for plastic worldwide by 40%! Two regions with access to natural gas liquids that are rapidly expanding plastics manufacturing capacity are the Gulf Coast and the Ohio River Valley.

Eager to justify this build-out, politicians and industries tout the ways plastic is part of a sustainable future. They say that without investing in plastic, we’re not taking full advantage of our resources, and that by using natural gas to make plastic instead of burning it, we’re keeping greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere. Speaking on manufacturing plastic from natural gas with public radio station WHYY, Pennsylvania’s Governor Wolf stated:

“I want to move to a point where what we’re using the gas for is for products that go into that sustainable energy future: lightweight products…so that we’re not burning this, we’re actually creating products that would make that energy future that we all want, that would address the issues of climate change in an effective way.”

The Shell Ethane Cracker in Pennsylvania is projected to produce 1.6 million tons of plastic per year, which Governor Wolf states is part of a “sustainable energy future.” Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance by LightHawk.

But the data say otherwise.

Plastic does not address the issues of climate change. In fact, using natural gas for plastic perpetuates climate change. Climate & Plastics found that this year, “the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—equal to the emissions from 136 one-thousand-megawatt coal power plants.” If plastic production grows as currently predicted, by 2030, emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year, or 291 new coal plants.

The rate of plastic production is directly at odds with global carbon emissions targets.

While plastic can be used for lightweight parts of electric vehicles or reusable materials, the plastic being produced by the current build out is primarily polyethylene plastic, most commonly used for packaging and single use products- plastic bags, bottles, jugs, containers, and plastic films and linings; products that countries and cities are phasing out.

3. Encourage plastic alternatives

While renewable energy is becoming increasingly available, so too are plastic alternatives. Across the world, communities are rethinking the products we use everyday. Thanks to historic legislation, zero waste stores,  and towns, and plastic-free bloggers, it’s never been a better time to cut back on plastic – and the FracTracker team is doing our part.

Rebecca, our Administrative and Human Resources Specialist, has cut her plastic use by switching to toothpaste tablets and bars of soap. Karen, our Eastern Program Coordinator, makes her own reusable beeswax food wraps. And Erica Jackson and Isabelle Weber in the Pittsburgh office keep reusable utensils in their backpacks. The whole team is cutting back on single-use plastic products, and are always on the look-out for non oil and gas-based products.

We also realize that with companies like Coca Cola selling 3,000 plastic bottles every second, and Nestlé  producing 1.7 million tons of plastic packaging a year, corporations play a key role in this movement.

Through the Story of Stuff’s #Messageinabottle project and Greenpeace’s #Isthisyours campaign, we’re also encouraging corporations to reimagine how the package and transport products.

Now YOU know, what will you do to help your company, community, or yourself #BreakFreeFromPlastic?

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