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Plastics and recycling are not urgent climate priorities

When climate change comes up in conversation, something curious often happens. After the topic is broached someone will state that they recycle, or that they hate it when other people don’t recycle, or that the environmental effects of plastics are very scary. The problem is that these statements are mostly unrelated to climate change.

Their argument often goes something like: plastics are made from oil, therefore….climate change. It sounds like I’m being uncharitable, but I’ve heard the argument phrased almost exactly like this. Here is the trouble with that line of reasoning. Many products are made from petroleum. To take a straw man example, even medicine is manufactured using some chemical ingredients that are derived from crude oil. But the first question should be: How much CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) comes from the product, compared to global emissions?

The answer I have been quoting for a while is 1.5 to 2% (0.85 Gt [CIEL]). While I was writing this, someone sent me a paper claiming GHG emissions from plastics are closer to 3.8%. That’s the highest estimate I’ve seen, so let’s say that is the upper bound. (I’m quick to point out that, despite inspiring momentum in the zero consumer waste movement, many plastic products will need to be replaced with something else---with aluminum and wood for example, depending on the application. These materials have emissions associated with them as well. The correct near-term comparison would be to subtract the substitutes’ emissions from those of plastic. Or, to ignore the portion of the material’s emissions that are indirect, like cargo transport emissions, as those affect all raw materials and will presumably be decarbonized through separate policies. But for now I’ll assume the pessimistic percentages above can be used directly.)

These numbers make it hard to see plastics as a top priority for climate change. To be fair, I do think >1% is a good working threshold at which we should be concerned about an emissions source. But to prioritize plastics regulation over laws that affect solar/wind deployment, massive grid transmission, and battery deployment/research? Or even cement production, industrial heat, and land use? That would be quantitatively ridiculous. Strategically speaking, it would be like committing our best resources and attention to protecting Iceland during World War II. Does Iceland deserve protection? Sure. But it wasn’t exactly a top three priority in 1941.

Articles and white papers purporting to link plastics and climate change are easy to find. Consider these two prominent articles from the well regarded Yale Climate Connections and Columbia’s Earth Institute. Neither article bothers to make the simple comparison of plastics-related emissions to total emissions. Instead, they write things like “Today, about 4-8% of annual global oil consumption is associated with plastics,” or, “In 2015, emissions from extraction and transport for plastic production were 9.5-10.5 million metric tons of CO2 […] the equivalent of the emissions of 2.1 million passenger cars driven for a year.” The percent of total oil consumption might sound important, but it does not tell us that much about emissions. And expressing emissions in terms of millions of cars is not that useful for seeing the big picture. It’s fine to include numbers of this type, as they can help the reader grasp the concepts, but the authors have excluded the most relevant number: the percent of total GHG emission. This is always a telltale sign of climate BS. I find it to be somewhat intellectually dishonest and my guess is that the omission is often intentional.

A side note: the researchers who make a living studying and recommending the most effective policies for rapid decarbonization (e.g. Mark Jacobson, Energy Innovation, Rocky Mountain Institute) categorically do not prioritize plastics or consumer waste. You’d probably need a good reason for thinking you know something that they don’t.

However, I’ll concede one reason to take the plastics-climate connections somewhat seriously. But the connection is pretty indirect and it’s not the justification many environmentalists use.

The link is that a lot of petroleum companies’ revenue does come from petrochemicals, i.e. precursors to things like plastics. So if there is a big dip in plastics demand, this would hurt the bottom line of the oil majors. This in turn would lead to (a) less money for actual oil exploration and production (at least in principle) and (b) less money for the massive propaganda campaigns and political spending that the fossil fuel industry has been using to manipulate policy and public opinion. In other words, I agree that there is more to this massive nonlinear climate optimization function than just percentage emissions. The game is chess, not Hungry Hippos. But we should be explicit, that targeting big oil’s political influence is the only serious argument for including plastics as even a medium-level priority.

The cynical part of me wonders if some climate activists are aware of plastics’ small GHG effect, but push this narrative because it ingratiates them with the more generalist environmental crowd. It is after all not easy to create bonds across advocacy groups. If so, this is an unproductive route. Better to be honest about the numbers, lest we leave the actual major sources of GHG emissions unabated. Plastics are a huge environmental issue, but they have little impact specifically on climate change. Before all else we have to end the burning of fossil fuels (75% of CO2e), the singular massive contributor to climate change.


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