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Climate Change

Plastic production, use linked to climate change, report says

Industry counters that alternatives have greater impacts

by Cheryl Hogue
May 16, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 20


Photo of plastic bottles on a manufacturing line.
Credit: Shutterstock
Increases in greenhouse gas emissions accompany the global growth in production and use of plastics.

The expansion of plastic production and use is threatening Earth’s climate, says a report from the Center for International Environmental Law.

For 2019, the annual greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel extraction for raw materials as well as from plastics production and disposal by landfilling or incineration is estimated to be 0.86 billion metric tons (t) of carbon dioxide equivalent. But if plastics manufacturing and use increase as currently expected, their related greenhouse gas emissions will rise to 1.34 billion t of CO2 equivalent in 2030, the report predicts.

To meaningfully curb worldwide emissions from the entire life cycle of plastics, the report recommends ending the production and use of single-use, disposable plastics. It also calls for stopping the development of new infrastructure for oil, gas, and petrochemical production.

However, the study “falls short of comparing the carbon profiles of products and packaging made with plastics to those of alternatives, which tend to be much greater as documented in numerous life cycle studies,” says the American Chemistry Council, the largest chemical industry trade association in the US. Additionally, “because plastics are strong and lightweight, they help us do more with less”­—such as by reducing the volume or weight of products for shipping and by making vehicles more fuel efficient, the ACC says.


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