Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet

Everyone knows what causes climate change: fossil fuels. What’s less known is that plastic is also a climate polluter, as it is made from fossil fuels, such as crude oil, coal, and natural gas.  New research published by Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) makes this inextricable link visible, by examining greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from each stage of plastic’s lifecycle, from wellhead to refinery, incinerators, and in the oceans.  

The research clearly shows that burning plastic in incinerators creates the most CO2 emissions among any plastic waste management method.

  • Burning a metric ton of plastic in an incinerator results in almost one ton of CO2 emissions, factoring in energy production from the process. 
  • Globally, burning plastic packaging adds 16 million metric tons of GHGs into the air, equivalent to more than 2.7 million homes’ electricity use for one year.
  • If the petrochemical industry massively expands by 2050, GHG emissions from plastic packaging incineration will increase to 309 million metric tons.
  • The climate impact of plastic waste incineration in the U.S. was about 5.9 million metric tons in 2015, which is equivalent to 1.26 million passenger vehicles driven for one year, or more than half a billion gallons of gasoline consumed.