NPR on Understanding Plastic's Carbon Footprint

Posted by Chandler Slavin on Jul 11, 2019 11:24:27 AM

NPR published an article this week, "Plastic Has a Big Carbon Footprint-- But That Isn't The Whole Story."

Christopher Joyce, correspondent on the science desk at NPR, discusses the impact of plastics production on the environment. He writes, "Largely overlooked is how making plastic in the first place affects the environment, especially global warming. Plastic actually has a big carbon footprint, but so do many of the alternatives to plastic. And that's what makes replacing plastic a problem without a clear solution."

All acknowledge that the production of plastics will only increase with rapid global development, and that the plastic pollution problem will rise accordingly in the "business as usual" scenario. To combat this, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy is working to change the economics of plastics such that there is value to its recovery. The Report reads:

With an explicitly systemic and collaborative approach, the New Plastics Economy aims to overcome the limitations of today’s incremental improvements and fragmented initiatives, to create a shared sense of direction, to spark a wave of innovation and to move the plastics value chain into a positive spiral of value capture, stronger economics, and better environmental outcomes. This report outlines a fundamental rethink for plastic packaging and plastics in general; it offers a new approach with the potential to transform global plastic packaging materials flows and thereby usher in the New Plastics Economy (Executive Summary, p. 15).

Because the end of life management of plastics is a global priority, material innovations and investment in recovery are following. China's ban on recovered material imports is spurring investment in domestic recycling infrastructure, and scientists around the world are synthesizing new materials that are designed for recovery.

While human ingenuity and stakeholder collaboration are working to tackle the plastics pollution problem, the energy intensity of plastics production needs to be addressed. Joyce quotes Caroll Muffett, head of the Center for International Environmental Law; she says, "Plastics is among the most energy-intensive materials to produce."

Joyce explains,

First, there are gas leaks that occur at the wellheads. Then there are leaks from the pipelines that take oil and gas to a chemical plant. Then there's the lengthy chemical process of turning oil or gas into raw plastic resin. Factories then use more energy to fashion the plastic into packaging or car parts or textiles. Trucking it around to consumers generates more emissions. And once plastic is used, it often gets burned to make electricity, which is yet another source of greenhouse gases.

The carbon footprint of plastics production is a problem; but, for Joyce, the assertion that plastics be replaced with other materials is not the solution. 

Joyce references Eastern Research Group (ERG), an independent research company that analyzed the lifecycle requirements of paper vs. plastic. Raw material production, electricity, fuel, water and other materials needed to make and use paper and plastic packaging were calculated. ERG's study found that plastic uses less environmental resources than paper. Beverly Sauer, a chemical engineer at ERG who led the study says, "The impacts associated with plastic are generally much lower than the impacts for the mix of substitute materials that would replace packaging."

If the market for domestic plastics recovery is established, and developing countries able to better manage their waste, then plastics pollution can be mitigated with the rise of its production. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the plastics industry now is how to make the production of plastics more sustainable.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastic Economy echos Joyce's sentiments that the carbon footprint of plastics production need to be addressed. The report reads:

In 2012, [greenhouse gas emissions] amounted to approximately 390 million tonnes of CO2 for all plastics (not just packaging). According to Valuing Plastic, the manufacturing of plastic feedstock, including the extraction of the raw materials, gives rise to greenhouse gas emissions... The production phase, which consumes around half of the fossil feedstocks flowing into the plastics sector, leads to most of these emissions... Even though plastics can bring real resource efficiency gains and help reduce carbon emissions during use, these figures show that it is crucial to address the greenhouse gas impact of plastics production and after-use treatment (p. 19).

The Foundation proposes an ambitious solution: Decouple plastics from fossil fuel feedstocks. This requires innovation in alternative plastic feedstocks, a remake of the energy grid powering the plastics production supply chain, and the continued development of recovery schemes for existing materials to reduce the need for virgin material.

Due to economies of scale, development of giant batteries and cheap solar power are "shoving fossil fuels off the grid." As US coal companies continue file to for bankruptcy in the face of mounting environmental pressures and the unsustainable costs of doing business as usual, 100% renewable energy is now an attainable future. 

The plastics dialog continues to evolve. Scientists and researchers are providing the facts that we need to make the right decisions for how to reduce the impact of the products and services that we consume on the environment. Plastics made from renewable resources, powered by renewable energy, and recovered in the circular economy is a global priority; one being addressed by industry stakeholders, governments, NGOs, scientists, and philanthropists. History has taught us that human beings have the ability to develop solutions to the most challenging of problems; plastics sustainability is no exception.

Visit the sustainability section of Dordan's library to download reports on sustainable packaging.

Topics: Plastics recycling, Plastics, Plastic pollution