Brief: Counting Carbon: a lifecycle assesment guide for plastic fuels

Today, Bellona Europa Zero Waste Europe and Rethink Plastic Alliance launch the brief “Counting Carbon: a lifecycle assessment guide for plastic fuels“.

Since the 1950s when we first started producing plastic resins, we’ve produced approximately 9.2 billion tons of it. More than 70% of it has been discarded in landfills or the environment. In 2019, the entire plastic value chain, including its production, use and disposal added more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Converting fossil plastics to fuels is sometimes marketed as a part of the solution to the environmental and waste problems the plastic industry is currently facing.The climate performance of these fuels, along with other environmental impacts, will be evaluated under a delegated act by 2021.

Some manufacturers have claimed that these fuels could be labelled as low-carbon, effectively using plastic fuels to greenwash CO2 coming from fossil oil and gas. “Fuels produced by refining fossil plastic should not be considered low-carbon. We can’t turn oil back into oil, burn it and claim that we’ve fixed the problem. It might work on paper, but it will not reduce emissions in reality,” said Ana Šerdoner, Industry Policy Manager at Bellona Europa, and lead author of the brief.

To prevent gaming and selective accounting robust guidelines for a full LCA are needed. With this report we want to stress and demonstrate that the fossil carbon embedded within plastics needs to be traced from the extraction of the fossil carbon to its emission into the atmosphere.

In this briefing we assess the greenhouse gas accounting methods used to measure the climate impacts of such fuels, its use and abuse. Since there has been no example of a comprehensive and impartial life-cycle assessment to date, this briefing compares two scenarios of accounting and shows how partial assessments will not accurately estimate the total increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. Favourable accounting allows for the CO2 emissions to be lost, giving the false impression that almost no GHGs will be emitted to the atmosphere.
“More than 90% of plastic is produced by refining fossil fuels. Every plastic bottle is an emission waiting to be released to the atmosphere. If these fuels are produced, the plastic going into the production process should not be considered as a renewable,” Ana Šerdoner continued.

Plastic fuel results in the release of fossil carbon to the atmosphere, therefore increasing the overall amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and contributing to further climate change.  Redefining such a process as low-carbon would therefore be just greenwashing.

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Find here the brief: