From clothing to furniture, grocery packaging to fishing nets, plastic permeates nearly every aspect of today’s society. The average American uses 156 plastic bottles a year, which means that every hour, 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away. In 2019, global plastics production temporarily appeared to peak at 368 million tons but is again on the rise, and in fact, is expected to almost quadruple by 2050, according to a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum.
Plastic manufacturing is forecast to drive up crude oil production at a rate of around 3.5%, so by 2050 it could consume around 20% of global oil extracted. Single-use, plastic packaging used to wrap food items like cheese or trail mix makes up a significant segment of this “new plastic economy”. Manufacturing this type of plastic requires ethane, a by-product of fracking – a process that injects water, sand, and chemicals underground to break up bedrock and release underlying oil and gas – followed by the application of a technology known as ethane cracking. The process of making single-use plastic is already associated with pollution and ecological harm, leading to environmental justice concerns in areas like St. James Parish, Louisiana. One of several communities near the Mississippi River in an area dubbed “Cancer Alley”, the 150 petrochemical facilities and refineries operating there have led to air pollution linked to higher levels of cancer.
Renewable energy is on the rise, driving down oil demand, but society’s growing dependence on plastic continues to make fossil fuel extraction profitable for petrochemical companies. Industry experts expect Shell, for example, to soon produce 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic each year. Petrochemicals include acetylene, benzene, ethane, ethylene, methane, propane, and hydrogen and form the basis for thousands of other products, including plastics. Top virgin polymer producers ExxonMobil (XOM.N), Dow (DOW.N), Sinopec (600028. SS), Indorama Ventures (IVL.BK), and Saudi Aramco (2222.SE) collectively contributed to about a fifth of waste from single-use plastic in 2021, according to the Minderoo Foundation. If the world continues with business as usual, by 2030, plastic-linked emissions are expected to equal those roughly equivalent to 300 coal-fired power plants.
Globally, only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled, and in the U.S., about 76 percent of plastic garbage ultimately ends up in landfills. But, plastic, in contrast to other types of waste, doesn’t decompose to natural, nontoxic substances. On average, a plastic bottle takes 450 years to degrade, eventually breaking into tiny plastic bits that contaminate the environment and often release harmful chemicals. A large segment of plastic waste is picked up by rainwater, carried by rivers, and eventually deposited into the ocean, where it impacts marine ecosystems and wildlife. Some plastic waste breaks down into microscopic pieces, called microplastics, while other plastics from items like synthetic clothing and fishing nets ultimately wind up as microfibers. Due to their capacity to absorb – and later release – things like pesticides, dyes, and flame retardants, these types of plastic waste pose a significant threat to the environment and important drinking water sources.
How do we solve the plastic problem?
Petrochemical players aiming to sustain the plastic boom push recycling as the solution to the plastic crisis, as levies or outright plastic bans would undermine their bottom lines. In practice, however, plastic recycling faces often unsurmountable yet unpublicized obstacles. More often than not, we are led to believe that the co-mingled plastic containers that land in recycling bins travel to plants and are converted to materials used in the manufacture of future products. In reality, thousands of types of plastic exist which cannot be melted down together. Plastic also weakens when recycled, unlike steel or glass which maintain their original properties. For these reasons, manufacturers tend to lean toward cheap, easily produced new plastic, which exacerbates the problem by reducing market demand for plastics that do make it through the recycling process. Despite loads of plastic separated by consumers and intended for recycling, a 2017 study by the National Association for PET Container Resources found that only 21 percent of the plastic bottles were actually turned into new things.
Around the world, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic water bottles end up in our oceans every year. “Fast fashion” is another current phenomenon contributing to the surge of discarded plastics due to the vast number of fabrics containing nylon and polyester. The US EPA reports that 17 million tons of textiles went to landfills in 2018, making up nearly 6 percent of total municipal waste, and just 14.7 percent of this waste was recycled.
Turning the Tide
Curtailing plastic production will require a paradigm shift in manufacturing and consumer attitudes. Some suggest putting a price on plastic – a “polymer premium” – to incentivize the exploration of more sustainable plastic alternatives. Financial incentives can also be used to energize plastic reuse and recycling, and other ideas are being considered by industry leaders. According to consumer reports, companies that sell the most plastic—Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo are working toward eliminating unnecessary plastics; ensuring that all plastic packaging is reused, recycled, or composted; and making sure that plastic packaging is free of hazardous chemicals as part of a partnership called the New Plastics Economy.
As we begin the summer of 2023, 170 countries (give or take) are working to develop a draft of the first-ever global treaty to curb plastic pollution, and country delegations, NGOs, and industry representatives recently gathered in Paris for the second round of UN talks toward a legally binding pact to halt the explosion of plastic waste.
Individuals, too, are looking to move away from plastic. A 2019 IPSOS online survey of more than 19,000 adults from 28 countries, found that 71% of consumers worldwide favor banning single-use plastics. Some statistics reflecting the plastics crisis – like the overwhelming number of discarded bottles and clothing – illustrate the power of individuals to affect change. For instance, by simply making the personal decision to quit purchasing plastic beverage containers and choosing thrift clothing over brand-new, one person can reduce significant plastic waste. If an individual extends plastic avoidance to their family of four, or, better, their office of 20, we can collectively turn the tide. There’s no harm in trying – start your plastic-free (or reduced plastic) journey today.