• Patricia Albers

The Plastic Problem is a Fossil Fuel Problem Part II: Refining and Manufacturing

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

In Part I of this series, we discussed the links between plastic and fossil fuel extraction. In this week's installment, we'll be discussing the toxic refining and manufacturing processes that make plastic.

Construction is nearing completion at Shell’s gargantuan Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex outside Pittsburgh. When it reaches full capacity, this plastics factory will transform ethane piped in from fracking sites into ethylene, then polyethylene in the form of one million tons of plastic pellets annually. As the feedstock for the most common plastics, the pellets will be used to make everything from automobile parts to plastic bags, medical equipment to single-use coffee lids.

Plastic Pellets. Credit: PICNIC Network
Plastic Pellets. Credit: PICNIC Network

The refining and manufacturing stage in plastics’ life cycle requires massive amounts of power and thus carries a sizable greenhouse gas footprint. In fact, setting aside cement and steel production, it’s among the most greenhouse gas–intensive of all industries. Shell’s plant alone has a permit to emit as much CO2 (and equivalents) annually as 480,000 passenger vehicles. A portion will come from the energy required to run the plant, the rest from direct emissions. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average US passenger vehicle emits 4,600 metric tons of CO2 every year. That puts the greenhouse gas emissions from the Shell factory at up to 2.2 million metric tons a year.

From Ethane to Coffee Lid

Thirty-some other US plastics factories, called “ethane crackers,” are currently in operation. All spew a toxic brew, including not only CO2, but also asthma- and cancer-causing air pollutants like benzene and formaldehyde. Virtually all ethane crackers are in low-income communities and communities of color along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. The industry’s massive expansion currently centers on economically depressed Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

Once ethane arrives at these crackers via pipeline or rail, it is heated by giant furnaces at temperatures up to 1,500 degrees. This extreme heat “cracks” its molecular bonds, turning it from ethane to ethylene, the building block of plastic. Cracking also deposits coke—almost pure carbon—on the reactor walls. Decoking requires a flow of steam that’s emitted into the atmosphere through giant smokestacks.

An Ethane Cracker. Credit: BASF–We Create Chemistry
An Ethane Cracker. Credit: BASF–We Create Chemistry

About 60 percent of the ethylene molecules are then combined into long molecular chains known as polyethylenes. Types of polyethylene include HDPE (high-density polyethylene, aka no. 2 plastic, used for milk cartons and shampoo bottles, for instance) and LDPE (low-density polyethylene, aka no. 4 plastic, typically used for plastic bags like sandwich and frozen food bags). Ethylene is also used to manufacture plastics including polyvinyl chloride (often called vinyl) and polystyrene (often called Styrofoam).

Emissions from Plastic Production Are Set to Skyrocket

In 2015, emissions from US ethane crackers emitted as much CO2 as 3.8 million passenger vehicles (equivalent to about 1.4 percent of the total registered passenger vehicles in the US). Since then, these emissions have rapidly risen.

According to a 2018 report from the Department of Energy, US production capacity for ethylene and related products is expected to grow by 85 percent over 2018 levels by 2040. Over the past decade, companies have invested more than $200 billion in 333 US plastics and chemical projects, reports the American Chemistry Council. These include building new plants, expanding facilities, and constructing pipelines, mostly for plastic production.

Among the planned new facilities is the Formosa Plastics Corporation’s Sunshine Project, an increasingly contested petrochemical complex planned for the banks of Mississippi near Baton Rouge. If this factory is built and becomes fully operational in 2029, as the company hopes, it would be allowed to pump 13.6 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually. That dwarfs the 2.2 million tons that Shell’s petrochemical complex will be allowed to emit. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the carbon footprint of the Sunshine Project factory would exceed those of 113 countries.

Why the dramatic acceleration in plastic production? Seeing an opportunity to reap huge profits from a glut of fracked natural gas, and to compensate for a reduced demand for fossil fuels, the petrochemical industry is accelerating the production of plastic. The vast expansion of the infrastructure for plastic production currently underway could cancel out recent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and lock in a new and ballooning source of emissions. Even if Americans reduced their use of plastic packaging, the industry would likely export the plastic feedstock from US-fracked ethane to other countries. What’s more, the shrinking cost of virgin plastic would discourage entrepreneurs from using recycled plastic in their products.

The planet and all its inhabitants would be further smothered in plastic—its production and incineration becoming even bigger contributors to the greenhouse gases that are disastrously warming it.

Coming Next — Part III: Emissions from Plastic Waste

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