The new coal


Plastic has not been widely recognized for its role in climate change, but a recent report by Beyond Plastics shows that by 2030, the plastics industry will release more greenhouse gas emissions than coal plants in the US.


 The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change

by Beyond Plastics at Bennington College analyzes never-before-compiled data of ten stages of plastics production, usage, and disposal and finds that the U.S. plastics industry is releasing at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants, Beyond Plastic wrote in a recent press release.

And that number is growing quickly. In 2020, the plastics industry’s reported emissions increased by 10 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 2019. Construction is currently underway on another 12 plastics facilities, and 15 more are planned—altogether these expansions may emit more than 40 million more tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2025.

“The fossil fuel industry is losing money from its traditional markets of power generation and transportation. They are building new plastics facilities at a staggering clip so they can dump their petrochemicals into plastics. This petrochemical buildout is cancelling out other global efforts to slow climate change,” said Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Administrator and President of Beyond Plastics.

What the industry reports is less than half of what it actually releases, according to the analysis by Material Research. The Maine-based firm examined data from federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce, and Department of Energy, and found a severe undercounting of plastics’ climate impacts. In addition to the 114 million tons of greenhouse gases the industry reported releasing in 2020, Material Research identified another 118 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from other stages, the equivalent of more carbon dioxide than that of 59 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

It is important to note that the report’s estimates are conservative. “This report represents the floor, not the ceiling, of the U.S. plastics industry’s climate impact,” noted Jim Vallette, president of Material Research and the report’s author. “Federal agencies do not yet count many releases because current regulations do not require the industry to report them. For example, no agency tracks how much greenhouse gas is released when plastic trash is burned in cement kilns, nor when methane leaks from a gas processing plant, nor when fracked gas is exported from Texas to make single-use plastics in India.”

“The scale of the plastics industry’s greenhouse gas emissions is staggering, but it’s equally concerning that few people in government or in the business community are even talking about it. That must change quickly if we hope to remain within the 1.5° C global temperature increase scientists have pinpointed as critical to avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change,” said Enck.


In addition to the full report, the details of this research are available at, including analysis of the plastics industry that has never been made available to the public.


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