The global petrochemical industry has been called the ‘source’ of single-use plastic pollution in new analysis.
Analysis released today (18 May) states 20 companies, supported by a small group of financial backers, are ‘responsible’ for producing over 50% of throwaway single-use plastic that ends up as waste worldwide.
Published by Minderoo Foundation, the ‘Plastic Waste-Makers Index’ has been developed with partners including Wood Mackenzie, and experts from the London School of Economics and Stockholm Environment Institute among others.
The petrochemical industry has told us it’s our own fault and has directed attention toward behaviour change from end-users of these products, rather than addressing the problem at its source – Al Gore
Largely made from fossil fuels, single-use plastics are the most commonly discarded type of plastic which too frequently becoming pollution. Environmental campaigners have previously placed the blame for plastic waste at the feet of packaged goods brands such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola.
However, Minderoo Foundation says a small group of petrochemical companies who manufacture polymers are ‘the source of the crisis’.
Al Gore, former US Vice President, commented on the analysis, stating, “Tracing the root causes of the plastic waste crisis empowers us to help solve it. The trajectories of the climate crisis and the plastic waste crisis are strikingly similar and increasingly intertwined.
“As awareness of the toll of plastic pollution has grown, the petrochemical industry has told us it’s our own fault and has directed attention toward behaviour change from end-users of these products, rather than addressing the problem at its source.”
The Minderoo Foundation analysis states 20 companies are ‘the source’ of half of all single-use plastic thrown away globally.
ExxonMobil tops the list – which the analysis states contribute 5.9 million tonnes to global plastic waste – closely followed by US chemicals company, Dow, and China’s, Sinopec. 100 companies are behind 90% of global single-use plastic production, according to the analysis.
Close to 60% of the commercial finance funding single-use production, comes from j20 global banks. A total of US$30 billion of loans from these institutions – including Barclays, HSBC and Bank of America among others – has gone to the sector since 2011.
20 asset managers – led by US companies Vanguard Group, BlackRock and Capital Group – hold over US$300 billion worth of shares in the parent companies of single-use plastic polymer producers. Of this, US$10 billion is directly linked to single-use polymer production.
‘Stop making new plastic’
“The plastification of our oceans and the warming of our planet are amongst the greatest threats humanity and nature have ever confronted,” said Dr Andrew Forrest AO, Chairman and Co-Founder, Minderoo Foundation.
“Global efforts will not be enough to reverse this crisis unless government, business and financial leaders act in our children’s and grandchildren’s interests.
“This means: stop making new plastic and start using recycled plastic waste, it means re-allocate capital from virgin producers to those using recycled materials, and importantly, it means redesign plastic so it does no harm and is compostable, so like every other element, it returns to its original molecules, not nano-plastics.
The plastification of our oceans and the warming of our planet are amongst the greatest threats humanity and nature have ever confronted
“And we must act now. Because while we bicker, the oceans are getting trashed with plastic and the environment is getting destroyed by global warming.”
Minderoo Foundation, authors of the report, is calling for petrochemicals companies to be required to disclose their ‘plastic waste footprint’ and commit to transitioning away from fossil fuels towards circular models of plastic production.
It’s also calling for banks and investors to shift capital, investments and finance away from companies producing new fossil fuel-based virgin plastic production, to companies using recycled plastic feedstocks.
The report also looks at what it calls ‘the scale of inaction’ by plastic producers and how the Minderoo Foundation states they are ‘compounding the existing throwaway plastic waste crisis’.
According to analysis, a 30% increase in global throwaway plastic production is projected over the next five years. It says this growth in production will lead to an extra three trillion items of throwaway plastic waste by 2025 alone.
Recycled plastic or feedstocks account for no more than 2% of global single-use plastic production, meaning 98% of these plastics are produced from fuels.
It says plastic producers score ‘woefully’ in a best practice assessment of the move to circular based forms of production necessary in addressing the crisis.
It also says the global economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic pushed down the price of oil, making fossil fuel based single-use plastics ‘even more financially attractive’.
“Our reliance on oil and gas is not only fuelling climate change, but as the primary material used in the production of throwaway plastics also devastating our oceans,” said Sam Fankhauser, Professor of Climate Change Economics and Policy at the Smith School, University of Oxford and Former Director, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics.
“It is critically important petrochemical companies move towards circular economy-based alternatives if we are going to successfully tackle these interlinked crises. The benefits on offer are transformative and hugely beneficial not only for our environment and ecosystems, but also the communities living with the realities of plastic pollution.”
It is critically important petrochemical companies move towards circular economy-based alternatives if we are going to successfully tackle these interlinked crises
More than 130 million metric tonnes of single-use plastic ended-up as waste in 2019, according to the analysis. Of this, the Minderoo Foundation says, almost all is ‘burned, buried in landfill, or discarded directly into the environment’.
It says 19% of this waste – some 25 million metric tonnes – became pollution, dumped in oceans or on land (source: Breaking the Plastic Wave).
“This is the first-time the financial and material flows of single-use plastic production have been mapped globally and traced back to their source,” said Toby Gardner, Senior Research Fellow, Stockholm Environment Institute.
“Revealing the sheer scale of the global crisis we have on our hands, its critical we break the pattern of inaction. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Building on the analysis published today, this is why it is so important the small group of companies and banks that dominate global production of throwaway plastics begin to disclose their own data.”
Waste Per Person
The analysis also shows which countries are the biggest contributors to the throwaway plastics crisis.
Australia and the United States respectively produce the greatest amounts of single-use plastic waste per head of pollution, at more than 50 kg per person per year, followed by South Korea and the UK at more than 40 kg per person.
In comparison, the average person in China – the largest producer of single-use plastic by volume – produces 18 kg of single-use plastic waste per year; in India that figure is as low as 4 kg per year.
The Plastic Waste-Makers Index is a project of Minderoo Foundation’s No Plastic Waste initiative, which aims to create a world without plastic pollution – a truly circular plastics economy, where fossil fuels are no longer used to produce plastics.
Engineering masterpiece [Updated 20 May]
Tim Duret, Director of Sustainable Technology for Veolia UK and Ireland said plastic ‘is not a material that we should shy away from’, and that it is an ‘engineering masterpiece as the value plastic offers in packaging and hygiene is unmatched’.
He said: “What this report clearly highlights is the issue of single use plastics. We need to transform the way we approach this type of material, working collaboratively between industry and manufacturers and creating a shift in consumer behaviour to move towards a circular economy.
Plastic is durable and there are solutions, whether that be investing in new recycling techniques or altering products.
“We are actively working with companies mentioned to develop new value chains and address this issue. Plastic is durable and there are solutions, whether that be investing in new recycling techniques or altering products.
“We are part of the UK Plastic Pact which aims to ban unnecessary plastic, reduce and improve design of necessary plastics. The Plastics Packaging Tax is the key to this. By financially encouraging the use of recycled material; ecodesign and investment in infrastructure is incentivised and we will begin to reap the benefits of an overarching pre-production to treatment view when approaching plastics.”
See here for more details on Minderoo Foundation’s No Plastic Waste initiative.