More Plastic Is On the Way: What It Means for Climate Change

With the recent fracking boom causing low gas prices, fossil fuel companies are seeking other ways to bolster their profits — by making more plastic. Just as the world is starting to address its enormous plastic pollution problem, these companies are doubling down on plastic, with huge potential consequences for climate and the environment.

The over-abundance of natural gas has resulted in the lowest gas prices since 2016. Consequently, some fossil fuel companies are being forced to shut down drilling rigs and file for bankruptcy protection. Big companies like Exxon Mobil, Shell and Saudi Aramco, which see signs of a coming decline in fossil fuel use, are compensating for the low prices by investing in plastic production, since plastics are made from oil, gas and their byproducts. As a result, the World Economic Forum expects plastic production to double by 2040.

Natural gas contains ethane, which is a building block of plastic. Because the U.S. has extracted so much ethane with its natural gas, over $200 billion have been invested into 333 new chemical and plastics projects, as of the end of 2019.

Growth in ethane production, consumption and exports. Photo: USEIA

Judith Enck, former regional EPA director and a founder of Beyond Plastics, has said that 2020 is a critical year because many of the new plastic production facilities in the U.S. are in the permitting process; “If even a quarter of these ethane cracking facilities are built,” she said, “it’s locking us into a plastic future that is going to be hard to recover from.” One analyst from the data and analytics firm IHS Markit said that unless plastic production is slowed down, “they’ll just find something else to wrap in plastic.”

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