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A New Report Documents the Plastic Industry's Carbon Footprint

Here's what some cities, states, and countries are doing about it.
A plastic bag sits in a Manhattan street on May 5th, 2016 in New York City.

The report recommends ending the production of single-use plastic.

Many recent studies have documented plastic's pitfalls, from finding microplastics in the remote and pristine Pyrenees mountains to harming wildlife. But a new report published on Wednesday looks at a more insidious effect of America's plastic problem: carbon emissions.

The report provides a comprehensive analysis of the environmental impact of the global plastic industry, gathering research on the greenhouse gas emissions of plastic at every stage of the "plastic lifecycle." For example, just the production and incineration of plastics will add 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in 2019, which the authors calculate is equivalent to the emissions from 189 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

The researchers estimate that, by 2030, emissions from the plastic industry will reach 1.34 gigatons per year (equivalent to more than 295 500-megawatt coal power plants), and, by 2050, emissions from plastic production will be 14 percent of the global remaining carbon budget, in order to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The report concludes with recommendations for governments: The authors encourage ending the production and use of single-use plastic and fostering zero waste, ending construction of new petrochemical infrastructure, and enforcing new targets to curb greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production.

In light of these recommendations, here's a look at what some places are already doing to reduce plastic use:

  • Earlier this month, Maine banned single-use styrofoam containers. The ban is set to begin in January of 2021. Other states including Maryland, Vermont, and Oregon have taken steps toward styrofoam bans as well.
  • Some places, including Seattle and Washington, D.C., have banned plastic straws. A number of corporations, including McDonald's and Starbucks, have also set goals to phase out their use.
  • In 2018, the European Union Parliament voted to eliminate single-use plastic across the continent.
  • California and New York have implemented state-wide plastic bag bans. (Hawaii has more of a de facto ban because most of its counties ban them.) As of last July, the United Nations reported that 127 nations had banned plastic bags or instituted regulations on them, such as taxes.
  • Just this week, 187 governments (the United States not among them) agreed to add plastic to the Basel Convention, a treaty designed to regulate and reduce the movement of hazardous materials between countries.