Plastics production, A threatening contributor to climate change

By January 26, 2020January 30th, 2020No Comments

We have reached a point where environmental concerns became the riskiest, having an excessive amount of daily human activities that keep contributing to the growth of the climate change. The way we are using excessively plastic is alarming, just last year the global production and incineration of plastic added more than 850 million metric tons of GHG to the atmosphere, the same number of 189 coal power plants of 600 megawatts, and predictions expect it in increase year by year. Just for 2050, according to the Center for International Environmental Law, annual emissions could get to 2.75 billion metric tons of CO2 from plastics. Those projections extend further into the future than current plans to construct new petrochemical and plastic production facilities. Current plans for rapid expansion of production capacity are concentrated in the United States, China, and the Middle East, but also include expansions of petrochemical capacity in Europe and South America.

This industry, which is one the most promising industry sectors in Egypt by now keeps growing too, leaving the country’s environmental situation in a complicated scenario. After the revolution in 2011 different sectors slowed down, but that was not the case for the plastics industry. According to the Egyptian Plastic Exporters and Manufacturers Association, plastics and petrochemicals represented the 20% of 2017 exports, compared to 14% in 2005, showing the promising growth of the sector for the upcoming years. This has coincided with a rise in the number of factories from 2490 to 3000 and the number of employees from 280,000 to 600,000.It is known that plastics are the post harmful disposal, but before it ends in the environment, it will leave a remarkable trace, and going deeply on the topic it becomes clear afterwards. Every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, threatening the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C, the main reason, greenhouse gases emission. With plastics, these gases are emitted at each stage of the lifecycle: fossil fuel extraction and transport, plastic refining and manufacture, managing plastic waste and its ongoing impact in oceans, waterways, and landscape.Noxious during its whole lifecycleThe plastics industry is inimical from any point of view, as its lifecycle threatens the carbon emissions targets. First, It begins with the extraction and transport of fossil fuels, the main source of them, where a significant amount of greenhouse gases is produced and released. Sources include direct emissions, like methane leakage and flaring, emissions from fuel combustion and energy consumption in the process of drilling for oil or gas, and other ones caused by land disturbance when forests and fields are cleared for wellpads and pipelines. Basically, oil and gas are extracted from wells, and then are followed by a process to separate them into component parts, some of which are used for plastic production. Those chemical components are sent to facilities, usually “cracking” plants, where they are turned into olefins, organic chemicals that form the base for most plastic. Whether olefin producers use oil, gas, or coal as a feedstock depends on cost and availability, companies in the Middle East rely primarily on ethane from natural gas.

Then there is the plastic refining, which is a very intensive greenhouse gas industry in the manufacturing sector, such as the fastest growing. It is aggressive not just on the amounts of emissions generated but also on the amount of energy used for the manufacture of plastic, producing significant emissions through the cracking of alkanes into olefins, the polymerization and plasticization of olefins into plastic resins, and other chemical refining processes that affect the environment directly. According to the head of the Chemicals & Fertilisers Export Council (CEC), the Egyptian plastics demand increases by 10% annually, with a production capacity of about $198 bn, generating the immediate attention of investors and future projects and leading a hopeless forthcoming.

After its usage, where the time used depends on the type of resin and its usage, plastics are landfilled, recycled, or incinerated, where in any of the cases, more amounts of GHG are generated. Landfilling emits the least GHG on an absolute level, although it presents significant other risks. Recycling has less emissions but displaces new virgin plastic, boosting its production. And finally, incineration, which leads to extremely high emissions and is the primary driver of emissions from plastic waste management. Globally, incinerations are expected to grow on the coming years. But thats not the end of the story, most of the plastics disposed end on the environment, where other severe consequences are also getting into the game.

We are facing a plastic crisis, with an uncontrollable contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Different conventional and disruptive solutions are coming to solve the crisis, but changing the whole growing sector doesn’t seem to be happening that soon. Are we going to be able to take back the reins?