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The Link Between Fossil Fuels, Single-Use Plastics and Climate Change

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By Katie Day and Trent Hodges

When we think of plastic pollution, we think of images of plastic bags on the beach, suffering marine life and the almost invisible smog of microplastics in our ocean. What often gets overlooked is the fact that conventional plastic is made from fossil fuels, and is a product of the oil and gas industry.


Traditionally made from petroleum byproducts, plastic in the U.S. is now most commonly sourced from the nation's production of "abundant and affordable" natural gas. Natural gas liquids (NGLs) ethane and propane get extracted and sent to a "cracking facility" where ethane is made into ethylene (the foundation of polyethylene—the most common plastic in the world, frequently used for packaging, bottles and synthetic clothing), and at a dehydrogenation plant, propane is made into propylene (the foundation of polypropylene—a plastic commonly found in food packaging and vehicle manufacturing).

"The reason is simple: because of shale gas, it is more cost effective to produce ethylene in U.S. than just about anywhere else in the world."

— Excerpt from American Chemistry Council

The U.S. natural gas boom has made plastic feedstocks really cheap and readily available. An estimated $50 billion will be invested into new and expanded U.S. plastic production facilities, increasing production by roughly 50 percent in the next 10 years, and tripling the amount of plastic exports by 2030! That includes 400 new plastic processing facilities, in addition to plastic manufacturing facilities and plastic additive processing facilities, which can produce some significantly harmful chemicals including pthalates and brominated flame retardants.

In fact, in the U.S. alone, producers of polyethylene are expecting to increase production capacity by as much as 75 percent by 2022. Industry explains that this increase of production is fueled by expected increases in demand for disposable plastics, such as soft drinks and packaging, by millennials in developed countries, and growing consumer markets in developing countries. This means that much of the U.S. manufactured plastics are planning to be exported to developing countries, where waste management services may not be properly equipped to handle current, let alone a surge in non-biodegradable solid waste.

This is disheartening news, but just as the proposal for offshore oil drilling off the U.S. ignores the fact that the world is moving towards renewable energy, the plastics industry fails to recognize the proliferation of social and political changes such as bag bans, foam bans and society's refusal to accept an inundation of single-use plastic.

The movement to reduce single-use plastic pollution has gone global. At the local level, cities across the U.S. have banned and restricted the unregulated use of wasteful single-use plastics, fueled by campaigns that Surfrider chapters and passionate communities have fought for. On the international side, in January 2018, the European Commission announced a Europe-wide strategy to reduce plastic pollution and ensure that all plastic in Europe is recyclable by 2030.

Even the UN Environment Program has taken a strong stance against plastic pollution, and started a global campaign to reduce marine debris from microplastics and single use plastics by 2022. Though none of these actions alone signal an end to single-use plastics, they do show the increased resistance among cities, nations and the international community to reject products that are used once and thrown away to the detriment of our waters, land and wildlife.

Plastic pollution is an issue that demands worldwide cooperation, similar to climate change, as they are two sides of the same coin. As a product of extracting and refining fossil fuels for energy, the amount of plastic produced is influenced by the demand for and production of oil and gas. Industry analyses find that the production of plastics from fossil fuel is only cost effective when the components not used for plastics are used for energy production, treating plastic more as a byproduct of the industry. Therefore, if we transition away from fossil fuels, and towards renewable energy and a healthy climate, we also encourage industry to transition away from producing wasteful single-use plastics.

"Plastics manufacturers assume demand for disposable plastics will continue to rise, despite evidence that global awareness of plastic pollution is growing and cultural attitudes are changing. Industry investments reflect a further underlying assumption that supplies of cheap hydrocarbons will remain the norm for decades to come, even as the global community has begun to phase out the very fossil fuels upon which plastics producers depend."

— Excerpt from Center for International and Environmental Law

This makes the fight against single-use plastic pollution more compelling and holistic, realizing that good choices in renewable energy and climate friendly decisions may also help reduce single-use plastic production and pollution, and vice versa.

We need your help to reduce the consumption of single use plastics and fossil fuels!

  • Support bans on harmful single-use products through local campaigns.
  • Reduce your reliance on greenhouse gas emissions by driving less, investing in high-efficiency lighting and appliances, and buying locally.
  • Adopt a single-use plastic free lifestyle by investing in reusable cups and cutlery, purchasing loose produce instead of packaged produce, and saying no to plastic straws, bags, bottles, and takeaway containers.

Our friends at 5 Gyres are also bringing awareness to the link between climate change and plastic pollution on their new page!

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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