Fracking Industry Driving Massive Boom in Plastic Production
Ignoring a shocking carbon footprint, a broken global recycling system, and ever-growing public outcry, the fossil and petrochemical industries are banking big on plastics, pouring billions into new production facilities as a hedge against the coming crash of the internal combustion engine.
“Although plastic is often seen as a separate issue from climate change, both its production and afterlife are in fact major sources of greenhouse gas emissions,” writes Yale Environment 360. Those emissions accrue at nearly every stage in the plastic life cycle.
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“Global emissions linked to plastic—now just under 900 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually—could by 2030 reach 1.3 billion tons, as much as almost 300 coal-fired power plants,” e360 reports, citing data from the U.S. Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “If output grows as planned, plastic would use up between 10 and 13% of the carbon emissions allowable if warming is to stay below 1.5°C.”
Already, the world is literally awash in plastics, thanks both to gargantuan levels of production and a recycling system that never really worked.
“China’s closing of its doors to foreign plastic waste in 2018 laid bare the inadequacy of global recycling systems, leaving many wealthy nations with mountains of waste,” observes e360.
Over-produced and often with no discernable value beyond first use, plastic waste is devastating ecosystems around the world. In a recent report on the growing public backlash against plastics, InsideClimate News writes of plastic particles being “found in the stomachs of the deepest known marine animals, nearly seven miles below the surface of the sea”; of the wind depositing “as much microplastic per square metre in a secluded area high in the Pyrenees Mountains…as researchers would expect in the city of Paris”; and of a necropsy on the body of a young Cuvier’s beaked whale that revealed a stomach filled with “88 pounds of plastic, including plastic bags from grocery stores.”
And then there are the myriad impacts on public health that can be clearly linked to the plastics industry. “The average American now ingests more than 70,000 particles of microplastics per year, according to a study in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology,” InsideClimate writes.
As much harm as plastics wreak in their waste stage, the real trouble begins much earlier. The petrochemical process that produces plastic “can release airborne toxins such as 1,3-butadiene, benzene, and toluene, causing cancer and other illnesses,” reports e360, adding that fires at petrochemical plants—which can be common events—can spread such toxins widely on the wind. Compounding the harm to poor and, especially, Black communities, which often see the worst effects of environmental damage, “many plants are in poor areas, often communities of colour.”
As to “the fracking connection,” e360 writes, a combination of low natural gas prices and stockpiles of ethane—a fracking byproduct, and a critical feedstock for plastics—is creating a boom of producers such as ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, and Shell, all eager to make what money they can by selling the ethane to plastic makers—and betting the global appetite for plastics will keep the sinking ship of fossils afloat.
“Petrochemicals, the category that includes plastic, now account for 14% of oil use, and are expected to drive half of oil demand growth between now and 2050,” writes e360, citing the International Energy Agency (IEA).
“You can think of plastic as a kind of subsidy for fracking,” said CIEL staff attorney Steven Feit.
The need to stop this plastic onslaught is urgent. “We’re pretty close to it all being too late,” said Beyond Plastics founder Judith Enck, a former regional director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “If even a quarter of these ethane cracking facilities are built, it’s locking us into a plastic future that is going to be hard to recover from.”
The petrochemical industry, for its part, argues that plastics are a necessary part of modern life—and may even have some environmental benefits. Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets at the American Chemistry Council, told e360 that plastic makes “cars lighter and therefore more efficient, insulates homes, reduces waste by extending food’s life, and keeps medical supplies sanitary,” adding that “the key here is context. If you aren’t going to use plastics, what are you going to use instead?”
Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has persuaded Shell to build a US$6-billion ethane cracking plant “that is expected to produce up 1.6 million tons of plastic annually after it opens in the early 2020s,” writes e360. The lure? A $1.6 billion tax break, “one of the biggest in state history”.