There’s been a lot of media attention paid to the fact that plastic waste is rapidly turning our oceans into landfills. Ocean plastic has also been the focus of legislation and other actions to address the problem.
Although plastic pollution does pose a major and growing danger to marine wildlife, ecosystems, fisheries, and human health, plastic is, unfortunately, not just a threat to our oceans. Plastic is also a major threat to our climate and our collective future, a fact overlooked in most climate change programs, including the important new Biden climate agenda.
The rarely discussed reality is that plastic is a significant climate threat. In fact, if plastic were a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, beating out all but China, the U.S., India and Russia.
In the United States, plastic is made from a combination of chemicals and ethane, a byproduct of hydro-fracked natural gas. Plastics release greenhouse gases at every stage of their life, from extraction to refinement to production to transport to usage to disposal and beyond. In fact, scientists are questioning whether microplastic pollution may interfere with our oceans' ability to act as a crucial carbon sink.
Worse, the plastic industry plans to triple production by 2050 and has announced major new plastic-related production facilities in Louisiana, Texas, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Ohio. By 2050, the accumulation of plastic’s greenhouse gas emissions worldwide could reach over 56 gigatons — 10-13% of the entire remaining carbon budget. This planned expansion could undermine our ability to remain within the 1.5-degree Celsius global temperature rise scientists agree is necessary to avoid the worst ravages of climate change. In short, if the plastics industry succeeds with its planned buildout, it’s likely game over for climate.
Fortunately, there are solutions. But we must begin by turning off the plastic tap to ensure that our society makes, uses, and disposes of less, rather than more, plastic. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (Senate bill 984 and House bill 2238) introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) does just that by establishing a national "bottle bill" like the one in New York, requiring recycled content in beverage containers, and pausing for three years the permitting of new plastic-related production facilities. We call on Congress to pass it without delay.
This will be a major fight. Oil and gas companies are banking on the increase in plastic to make up for falling demand for fossil fuels as alternative energy becomes more widely available, affordable, and sought after and as electric cars and trucks become the norm rather than the exception. Simply put, plastic is Big Oil’s Plan B, a fact the industry openly acknowledges. It is clear the petrochemical industry needs to come up with a Plan C that will not hasten climate catastrophe.
The Biden administration has made slowing climate change one of its top priorities, as it should be. Now we need it and our elected officials to see the big picture and act accordingly. Swift action to limit plastic production (and the industry’s planned expansion) and to phase out single-use plastics must be a mandatory part of the Biden administration’s climate change agenda.
This guest essay reflects the opinions of Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics, a national project based at Bennington College, and former Congressman Richard Ottinger, founder of Pace University’s Energy and Climate Center.