• Patricia Albers

The Plastic Problem Is a Fossil Fuel Problem Part I: Extraction and Transport

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

We think of plastic as a recycling headache. True—it’s a recycling migraine. It’s also a social justice issue, a public health worry, and a fossil fuel problem that if addressed, would help us meet the climate emergency. According to the Center on International Environmental Law, “Greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 C.”

Consider first the climate impact of fossil fuel extraction and transport linked to plastic.

Composite. Image sources: Unsplash — ADIGUN AMPA, Christopher Vega, Erik McLean, and Volodymyr Hryschenko
Composite. Images credit: Unsplash — ADIGUN AMPA, Christopher Vega, Erik McLean, and Volodymyr Hryschenko

Most US-Produced Plastic Begins With Fracking

According to a report from Australia’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, global plastic production doubles every eleven years. That report dates from 2020, just before plastic consumption skyrocketed during the pandemic.

How is the world able to make all this plastic? Much of it comes from fracking in the US. The plastics industry is expanding more rapidly here than anywhere else. Most other countries rely on oil-based plastic production, but almost all plastic made in the US derives from fracking.

Fracking is the process of injecting a high-pressure water mixture into underground rock formations, forcing out oil or natural gas. Fracking for natural gas yields primarily the hydrocarbon methane (often used as a fuel source) but also natural gas liquids like ethane. Cheap and abundant in parts of the US, ethane is used to make ethylene, from which the most common plastics, low density polyethylene (LDPE) and high density polyethylene (HDPE), derive.

In 2008, the US produced 700,000 barrels of ethane a day. By 2017, that figure had shot up to 1.5 million barrels daily. This year, US ethane production is expected to reach 2 million barrels a day.

While natural gas prices are a matter of supply and demand, they have mostly declined since 2005. When the price of natural gas is lower than ethane, processing plants sell more ethane due to widening profit margins for this byproduct. Fracking is driving an unprecedented expansion of the infrastructure for plastic refining and manufacturing. Even as renewable sources of energy gain ground against fossil fuels, the petrochemical industry sees opportunities for huge profits from choking the world with plastic.

Currently fracking is underway in ten California counties and numerous sites offshore. Governor Newsom has ordered a halt to new fracking permits in 2024. Under his plan, oil extraction in California would not wind down completely until 2045. Most environmentalists say that’s not soon enough.

The Climate Cost of Extraction and Transport Linked to Plastic is High

Flaring (burning off gases) and leaks during fracking release large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas over 80 times more heat-trapping than CO2. Leakage rates from shale gas wells may be as high as 7.9 percent. That would make methane a bigger climate problem than coal. Because methane breaks down more quickly than CO2, reducing levels in the atmosphere could effectively slow global warming. Methane levels are rising however. A study by Cornell University researchers suggests that fracking may be driving this increase.

According to a recent report by the Center on International Environmental Law,

emissions from fossil fuel extraction and transport to refineries linked to plastic were at least 9.5 to 10.5 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents in 2015. Additional emissions come from clearing land to install the wellpads and pipelines used in fracking.

There’s More

But the issue of plastic as a fossil fuel problem doesn’t stop there. Emissions from its extraction and transport are just the beginning. Plastic produces greenhouse gases at every stage in its life cycle. Emissions from plastics account for less than 1/20th of total emissions. Yet, if the plastics industry continues to grow as predicted, its cumulative greenhouse gas emissions will amount to over 56 gigatons of CO2 equivalents by 2050. According to the Center on International Environmental Law, that amounts to 10 to 13 percent of the remaining carbon budget.

Coming Next — Part II: Refining and Manufacturing

Want to join in the effort to stop the plastic catastrophe? Learn more about 350 Silicon Valley’s work to regulate plastic and/or join our team. Email plastics@350siliconvalley.org.