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Plastics Could Soon Overtake Coal as a Climate Killer, and Pennsylvania is Right in the Middle of It

A report released on Oct. 21 by Beyond Plastics predicted dire consequences as a result of our inability to stop consuming plastics. Specifically, the report’s authors claim that the domestic plastics industry’s contribution to climate change is on track to exceed that of coal-fired power in this country by 2030.

We’ve known for years that our oceans and other water bodies are choked with unfathomable amounts of plastics pollution, and that the process to create those plastics is dependent on fossil fuels, namely fracked gas. Even in an increasingly climate-conscious world, more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year, half of which is consumed as single-use—products used once and tossed away (i.e. plastic bags), often finding their way to sidewalks, waterways, and green spaces.

This isn’t some far-away problem. The Keystone State is, after all, about to be home to the world’s newest plastics factory once Shell Chemical’s ethane cracker plant in Beaver County comes online sometime next year, a plant that is predicted to churn out 1.6 million tons of plastic annually. The plant won’t just be responsible for introducing massive amounts of single-use plastic into the world, but it will also pump more than 30 tons of hazardous air pollutants, 323 tons of fine particles, and 522 tons of volatile organic compounds into our air each year. 

According to the Beyond Plastics report, therein lies the problem: the U.S. plastics industry already emits at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, which is equal to the emissions of 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants. Those numbers will increase significantly in the coming years—Shell’s ethane cracker plant is only one of five cracker projects under construction or in the planning phases in the United States.

In total, at least 42 plastics facilities have opened, are under construction, or are in the permitting phase since 2019. If all of them become fully operational, they could cumulatively have the impact of 27 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants coming online by 2025. 

The bottom line is that the petrochemical industry is slated to surpass coal in terms of climate-killing emissions by 2030 and Pennsylvania’s dreams of becoming a petrochemical and plastics “hub” is part of the problem. We’re building on our longer history of polluting and destructive industries—timber, oil, coal, and fracked gas—with plastics.

Massive ethane cracker facilities aren’t the only culprits. The report specifically called out another sector of the plastics industry that Pennsylvanians should be familiar with: chemical recycling, sometimes referred to as “advanced recycling,” a complex process that involves turning plastic waste into fuel. 

To be clear, despite the name, this is not true recycling of plastics in which plastics are turned into other plastics. Instead, it would take plastic waste, break it down to its chemical constituents, and burn it as a source of fuel (with associated air quality emissions). 

Though there are only a few chemical recycling facilities operational across the country, one is being proposed right here in Pennsylvania, in Erie. It’s not currently clear what kinds of pollution could result from the Erie facility—all of the plastic sent to this facility will be turned into tiny flakes, half of which will be shipped or trucked to Canada and burned in steel mills. At this time, it is also unclear where the other half of the flaked plastic trash will go. 

We do know, however, that it’s estimated that the facility will require about 400 truckloads of plastic per day to stay profitable. We also know that chemical recycling facilities in the United States are predicted to be responsible for releasing 18 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, equivalent to nine coal-fired power plants. 

The report paints a very dim picture of our ongoing relationship with plastics, and though Pennsylvania plays a significant role in this crisis, work is underway to fight back. 

PennFuture is one of several groups that’s been working for years to beat back attempts to turn Appalachia into a plastics hub. The Shell plant may be online soon, but other similar facilities planned for the region have been put on hold indefinitely because of pushback from communities, and because of unfavorable market conditions as the world slowly becomes more climate-conscious. 

Progress can be seen in other nearby states, too. People in the state of New York once used 23 billion single-use plastic bags annually, a number that is in steep decline because of a ban on plastic bags. PennFuture is supporting a similar effort underway in Philadelphia, and the hope is that the entire state could soon follow in banning plastic bags. 

Finally, community members in Erie are questioning the viability of the chemical recycling plant planned there, and many voices of civic society have fought back against any new subsidies for plastics and fossil fuels. 

Our world might be trending in the wrong direction in terms of our plastics addiction, but we’re still fighting. If you want to fight alongside us, please consider becoming a member today. 

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