Plastic Industry’s Planned Expansion Threatens Our Ability to Avoid Catastrophic Climate Change

“We cannot solve the climate crisis without also addressing the rapidly-growing plastic pollution crisis,” said Judith Enck, Former EPA Regional Administrator and founder of Beyond Plastics

CONTACT 518.605.1770, Judith Enck,

September 15, 2019 BENNINGTON, VERMONT — As students around the world prepare for a series of climate strikes, the petrochemical industry is planning a massive expansion in production to make up for a shortfall caused by declining demand for fossil fuels, particularly for natural gas. If growth trends continue, plastic will account for 20 percent of global oil consumption by 2050. 

“As the nation moves away from fossil fuels and invests in energy efficiency and  renewable energy, the fossil fuel  industry is panicking and they are scrambling to find a substitute,” says Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and former EPA Administrator under President Obama, “They’ve settled on plastic production and are commanding eye-popping public subsidies to build new ethane cracker plants to turn the ethane that is a waste product of natural gas hydrofracking into virgin polyethylene plastic.”

In September 2018, The American Chemistry Council reported total investments of over $200 billion in more than 330 new or expanded facilities, an alarming 25 percent increase over the previous year’s reported investments. No fewer than 12 new ethane cracker plants are currently underway in communities (overwhelmingly poor and minority) in Louisiana, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. If these plants are approved and brought online, it will lock us in to even greater fossil fuel use and emissions.

The production and incineration of plastics release a tremendous amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, alone, the production and incineration of plastics will produce 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases – equivalent to the pollution output of 185 500-megawatt coal power plants. Even the most conservative predictions would result in plastics producing greenhouse gas emissions equal that of nearly 300 coal plants by 2030 and more than 600 in 2050.

The greenhouse gas emissions from the Royal Dutch Shell plant currently under construction in Monaca, PA would cancel out all of the carbon dioxide reductions that the city of Pittsburgh, 25 miles away, is working to achieve by 2030.

Should the planned expansion of the plastic industry continue apace, it will be impossible for the world to meet the Paris Climate Accord’s goal of preventing global warming from exceeding the 2.7 degree Fahrenheit rise above pre-industrial averages. Any warming beyond this threshold is predicted to result in catastrophic climate change. 

“Every new plastic production plant is another nail in the coffin,” said Enck, adding, “You can’t solve the climate change problem without also addressing the plastic pollution problem. And we can’t recycle our way out of the plastic pollution problem since less than 10% of plastics are actually recycled – and that number is likely to drop given the recent collapse of international markets.”

According to the Center for International Environmental Law’s recent report, “Plastic & Climate,” a first-of-its kind study found that plastic at the ocean’s surface continually releases methane and other greenhouse gases, and that these emissions increase as plastic breaks down further. Nine million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans each year – a number that is expected to increase significantly as plastic production expands. This research also suggests that plastic could interfere with the ocean’s capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, indicating that microplastics are toxic to phytoplankton and zooplankton, the microscopic ocean creatures that transport carbon deep into the ocean. 

“Policy makers need to connect the dots between plastics and climate change, and adopt new laws and regulations that address both problems before it is too late,” said Enck. “The only solution to both our climate crisis and our plastic pollution crisis is to keep fossil fuels in the ground and avoid making massive new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure, including ethane cracker plants. At a bare minimum, taxpayer dollars should not be used to subsidize these plants as is the case at the plant that’s currently under construction in Pennsylvania.”

As students, citizens and communities prepare for the planned Climate Strikes and for Climate Week, Beyond Plastics urges everyone to urge their elected officials to act quickly and effectively to address these deeply intertwined issues. Beyond Plastics urges people to start by attending a Climate Strike in their area (search listings at Those in New York’s Capital Region can join Beyond Plastics founder, Judith Enck at the Climate Strike March and Rally hosted by PAUSE and Green Education and Legal Fund on September 20th at 11:00 AM at 79 Sheridan Avenue in Albany, NY. That is the site of the old ANSWERS garbage incinerator which Enck helped close decades ago. The plant currently burns gas but Governor Cuomo wants spend $88 million in state tax dollars to add two new turbines to burn fracked gas to heat and cool the State Capitol and other state buildings.

Beyond Plastics is a nationwide project based at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, that pairs the wisdom and experience of environmental policy experts with the energy and creativity of college students to build a vibrant and effective anti-plastics movement. Our mission is to end plastic pollution by being a catalyst for change at every level of our society. We use our deep policy and advocacy expertise to build a well-informed, effective movement seeking to achieve the institutional, economic, and societal changes needed to save our planet, and ourselves, from the plastic pollution crisis.

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