Allen Hershkowitz Column

If Plastic is The New Coal, Are Bio-Based Options Better? (FREE)

Allen Hershkowitz PhD was a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council from 1988 to 2016 and is the Founding Director and Chairman of Sport and Sustainability International. He serves as the Environmental Science Advisor to numerous sports leagues and teams. Today, Allen writes on the topic of bio-based options. This is a FREE Article

As we know, world leaders are gathering in Glasgow at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). They are convening to promote policy options and new targets for cutting global greenhouse gases to net-zero emissions by 2050. 

With this goal in mind, it’s more urgent than ever for governments, businesses and consumers to focus on the greenhouse gas impacts related to the production, use and disposal of petrol-plastics. The plastics pollution crisis has captured the attention of consumers, businesses, and governments throughout the world, and for good reason: Plastics are the most ubiquitous form of litter on earth and managing discarded plastics is among the most difficult-to-solve “downstream” solid waste management challenges. 

Moreover, as I wrote in my previous commentary in Bioplastics News, what is less visible to the average consumer is the plastics industry’s substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil-fuel-based plastics are among the most energy-intensive materials to produce, generating virtually incalculable amounts of greenhouse gases, as well as other types of lethal and hazardous air emissions and water pollution. Industry estimates project plastics production to increase almost four-fold by 2050, which would contribute more global warming pollution than 500 large, five-hundred-megawatt coal plants, an amount of greenhouse gas pollution that will equal almost fifteen percent of the planet’s “total carbon budget.” 

Concerns about the plastics industry’s climate impacts were raised in 2019 by The Center for International Environmental Law: 

“At current [production] levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C…[Because] more than 99 percent of plastics are made from fossil fuels, greenhouse gases are emitted at each of each stage of the plastic lifecycle: 1) fossil fuel extraction and transport, 2) plastic refining and manufacture, 3) managing plastic waste, and 4) plastic’s ongoing impact once it reaches our oceans, waterways, and landscape… 

More recently, a new report produced by Beyond Plastics titled “The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change also concluded that “Plastics manufacturing is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions…”

Among the many findings contained in the Beyond Plastics report are these:

“As [coal] power plants close and [plastic production] infrastructure expands in the U.S., the plastic industry’s contribution to climate change will exceed that of coal by the year 2030.”

“…the U.S. plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of CO2e gas emissions per year…equivalent to the average emissions from 116 [500 megawatt] coal-fired power plants.” 

“The health impacts of emissions released by the plastics industry are disproportionately felt by low-income communities and people of color.”

In the USA, “at least 42 plastics facilities have opened since 2019, or are under construction or in the permitting process…Fully operational these new plastics plants could release an additional 55 million tons of CO2e gases—the equivalent of another twenty-seven 500 megawatt coal-fired power plants—by the year 2025.”

What is to be Done? Are Bio-Based Alternatives Better?

If a sustainable plastics industry does not exist, and it doesn’t, then it needs to be created. The growing interest in bio-based plastics is a promising and important step in that direction.  If the root cause of the petrol-plastics crisis is the industry’s total reliance on petroleum and fossil-gas, then it’s logical to conclude that bio-based raw materials are the only currently viable raw material replacement for fossil fuel-based plastics.

But are bio-based plastics less of climate risk? Not all bio-based options are of equal ecological value.

As we know, bio-based plastics refer to plastics that do not rely on petroleum or gas as raw materials. Instead, bio-based plastics rely on agricultural- or forest-based raw materials. Bio-based plastics offer the prospect of reorienting the plastics industry to conform more closely with ecological requirements. Although bio-based plastics currently make up less than one percent of the global plastics market, the production of plastics must ultimately shift away from petroleum and gas and towards bio-based alternatives if the plastics pollution crisis is to be addressed in a meaningful way.

However, if bio-based options are the only alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics, which bio-based polymer options are ecologically preferable?  Not all bio-based options are of equal ecological value. Although some available data suggests that upstream production of two bio-based options engender lower greenhouse gas impacts than most petrol-based plastics, (see Table 1), better and more current data related to GHGs and other production impacts need to be applied to every impact engendered by bio-based alternative to petrol-plastics. This is a necessary and timely field of research, especially as it concerns agricultural and forest-based alternatives to petrol-plastics. According to a recent report in the New York Times, 

“By some estimates, the agriculture industry produces a third of the world’s greenhouse gases linked to human activity, is a primary driver of deforestation and uses as much as 70 percent of the world’s fresh water supply. Yet it is lax in terms of tracking and disclosing not only its greenhouse gas emissions, but also the effect it has on forests and water use.”

Table 1: Greenhouse Gas Impacts of Two BioPolymers and Four Petro-Polymers

Data assembled by Finn Partners

Forest-based paper substitutes can also be helpful but, alas, paper is not always an eco-friendly alternative: the paper industry’s impacts on forests, water systems, air pollution and indigenous communities are well-documented. 

Clearly, more research and assessments are needed to inform the growing interest in, and the urgent need for bio-based plastics. This is especially important because misrepresentations about the actual biological benefits of some bio-based alternatives has plagued the development of consumer confidence in this market. This is especially the case when it comes to claims about bioplastics’ “biodegradability,” “compostability” and other downstream waste management options. Misleading claims have generated an understandable skepticism about whether bio-based plastics are an authentic ecological improvement. 

Nevertheless, it is essential to encourage a shift away from petrol-plastics.  Accordingly, environmentally concerned consumers and businesses should support investigations into the ecological and greenhouse gas impacts of bio-based plastic options. Given the worsening scope and growing urgency of the petrol-plastics pollution crisis it is critically important to educate consumers, and the banning certain ecologically harmful plastic items is long overdue. However, the root cause of the plastics pollution crisis is the use of fossil fuels to manufacture plastics and, ultimately, that must end. Promoting that market shift is the promise of bio-based plastics, and that shift will only occur if those alternatives are climate friendly. 


  1. at p. 36. The world’s carbon budget is defined as the total amount of CO2-equivalent emissions allowed to maintain a 66% chance of staying within the Paris Agreement target of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius this century.
  4. New York Times, October 18, 2021 at p. B4

Allen Hershkowitz PhD

Allen Hershkowitz PhD was a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council from 1988 to 2016 and is the Founding Director and Chairman of Sport and Sustainability International. He serves as the Environmental Science Advisor to numerous sports leagues and teams.

Earlier Postings in this Column

Image Credit

Photographer J. Henry Fair


The opinions expressed here by Allen Hershkowitz and other columnists are their own, not those of

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