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Plastics are everywhere. From the stomachs of deep-sea fish to human feces, Arctic snow to gusts of wind in the remote wilderness, the oil and gas byproduct has, barely a century after it was first synthesized in a laboratory, become a ubiquitous feature of virtually every ecosystem on Earth and every aspect of modern life.
It’s also playing a key role in permanently changing the climate of the planet it has come to dominate.
Plastics already produce 3.8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions throughout their lifecycle, roughly double the planet-heating pollution spewed by airplanes. By the end of this decade, the plastics industry in the United States alone is on pace to eclipse the carbon footprint of the country’s remaining coal-fired power plants, according to a new analysis from Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics think tank.
Newly compiled data on the 10 stages of plastic production, usage and disposal show the U.S. plastics industry is releasing at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, equivalent to 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.
Roughly 65% of the country’s active coal-fired plants retired over the past decade, yet the stupendous growth of the U.S. plastics industry threatens to offset whatever climate progress the world’s largest historical emitter has made at a moment when the nation is struggling to codify its transition from fossil fuels into law.
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