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Plastic waste litters cities and oceans. Plastic particles float in the air. That's just the stuff people can see. Largely overlooked is how making plastic affects the environment. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, it's a big contributor to climate change, but then, so are many of the alternatives.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The plastic water bottle or grocery bag or tray of cucumbers at the supermarket - they're made from oil or natural gas. And, says Carroll Muffett, it takes a lot of energy to make that happen.
CARROLL MUFFETT: The real story of plastic's impact on the environment begins at the wellheads where it comes out of the ground, and it never, ever stops.
JOYCE: Muffett runs the Center for International Environmental Law. The center has gathered global data on how much climate-warming greenhouse gas is produced in making all that plastic, from cradle to grave. First, there are gas leaks at the wellheads. Then there are leaks from the pipelines that take oil and gas to a chemical plant. Then there's the lengthy chemical process of turning oil or gas into raw plastic resin.
MUFFETT: Plastics is among the most energy-intensive materials to produce.
JOYCE: Factories then use more energy to fashion the plastic into packaging or car parts or textiles. Trucking it around to consumers causes more emissions. And once it's used, it often gets burned to make electricity. That's another source of greenhouse gases. All told, says Muffett...
MUFFETT: Emissions from plastics production and incineration could account to 56 gigatons of carbon between now and 2050.
JOYCE: Or about 50 times the annual emissions of all the coal power plants in the U.S. That's a big number because plastic production is expected to almost quadruple by 2050. That's according to the World Economic Forum. The American Chemistry Council says the U.S. industry plans to spend $47 billion on new capacity over the next decade.
MUFFETT: The key message that people should take away is that the plastics crisis is a climate crisis hiding in plain sight.
JOYCE: But one thing this analysis does not do is examine the carbon footprint of things that would replace plastic - things like paper or canvas or glass. Several research groups have, and plastic repeatedly comes out ahead.
Chemical engineer Beverly Sauer of ERG, an independent research group, compared a mix of plastic packaging with a mix of substitutes.
BEVERLY SAUER: The impact associated with plastics are generally much lower than the impact for the mix of substitute materials that would replace packaging.
JOYCE: ERG's analysis calculated the quantity of raw materials, as well as the electricity, fuel, water and other materials needed to make paper and plastic packaging. Plastic uses less. And at the end of its life, paper in a landfill emits more greenhouse gases. One big advantage plastic has is, it's light.
SAUER: The plastic packaging accomplishes its purpose with very little weight of material.
JOYCE: If, for example, a paper bag weighs twice what a plastic one does...
SAUER: Not only do you have to produce, you know, twice the weight of material; you have to transport twice the weight of material. You have twice the weight of material to manage at the end of its useful life.
JOYCE: And glass bottles weigh several times more than plastic ones. The ERG analysis was done for the American Chemistry Council. Analyses by the British government and other independent researchers have also found that most plastic packaging has a lighter carbon footprint than paper. But is plastic's effect on climate all that matters?
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JOYCE: Angela Howe says no. She's a surfer and an attorney with the Surfrider Foundation. It's a group started by surfers who keep beaches like this one in Southern California clean.
ANGELA HOWE: So they pick up trash, and they see that it's abundantly plastic, overwhelmingly.
JOYCE: Plastic litter lasts for decades, at least. It's trash that marine animals eat, and plastic breaks down into tiny pieces that contaminate rivers and oceans and our own food.
HOWE: Where does our trash go, and what can we do to stop that cycle where it's ending up in the ocean in whales' stomachs?
JOYCE: Environmental groups are trying to sort out the plastic versus paper problem. Susan Ruffo is a plastics expert with the Ocean Conservancy. She says plastic trash is bad for the oceans and human health, but so is climate change.
SUSAN RUFFO: We see climate as one of the most serious threats to the ocean, certainly in the long term. So you can't discount climate impacts of any solution that you're going to look at.
JOYCE: So if people want less plastic, they'll have to pick replacements carefully.
RUFFO: You know, we have a history as a species of solving one problem with great intensity, only to figure out we've created another one.
JOYCE: One thing that waste experts agree on is that there's too much of it, whether it's plastic or paper or something else. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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