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The plastics issue we seem to ignore

Jamie Wilson
February 4, 2019

Giant petrochemical companies have announced a wealthy alliance to tackle plastic pollution. But there's little talk of scaling back production to help the environment.

Oil drips through someone's hands
Image: Getty Images/U. Baumgarten

The day my close childhood friend turned 2 years old, The New York Times published an in-depth article entitled "The Promise and Perils of Petrochemicals."

It offered an insight into the complexities and "alchemy" of synthetics manufacture, and claimed that products such as plastics are often created more to meet the needs of industry than those of the consumer. In the same breath, it warned that large-scale production could, in years to come, become an environmental hazard.

That was in 1977. Fast forward to the here and now, and that prophecy is graphically borne out in abundant images from across the world of clogged waterways, dead wildlife and trash heaped as far, high and wide as the eye can see. 

Even the author of the decades-old caution might have struggled to imagine how, in the intervening 40 plus years, global and globalized society would go from an annual production of some 50 million tons — equivalent in weight to around 150 Empire State Buildings — to 335 million tons in 2016, as figures from Statista show.

Graphic: Plastic production since 1950

Yet it has. And despite the fact that of the overall 8.3 billion tons of plastic we've churned out to date, 91 percent has not been recycled. According to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, we're on track to quadruple our total output by 2050.

Given that plastics, left to their own devices and exposed to even the very worst extreme weather, can take many hundreds of years to break down, environmentalists are calling for a solution that goes beyond cleanups and bans on selected single-use items

Petrochemical companies to the fore?

In the first weeks of this year, the newly-minted Alliance to End Plastic Waste ventured a proposal it says could help. It aims to remove plastic from the environment with a five-year, €1.32 billion ($1.5 billion) plan that focuses on waste management, recycling infrastructures, innovation, education and cleanup.

At the alliance's launch event in London, the group of almost 30 member companies, which includes some of the world's largest petrochemical multinationals — BASF, Dow Chemical and Exxon Mobil — as well as consumer goods manufacturers such as Proctor & Gamble, said it would be collaborating with governments and NGOs in an effort to live up to its name.

Graphic: Estimated consumption of plastic by end-use sector

Read moreBioplastics: Great green hope or a false promise?

There was much talk about circular economies, value chains and missed recycling opportunities, but conversely not a word on the option of scaling back on the production of virgin plastics.

And in light of recent International Energy Agency (IEA) findings that say direct CO2 emissions from the petrochemical sector, which is "rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil consumption," are on course to rise 30 percent by 2050, it's that omission that reads like the real missed opportunity. Because a primary use of oil in the petrochemical industry is the manufacture of plastic.

Prevention better than a cure

"We're never going to solve the plastic pollution crisis if we don't stop the expansion of the petrochemicals industry," Delphine Levi Alvares, European coordinator of #breakfreefromplastic, a movement of more than 1,400 organizations pushing for a lasting solution to the plastic pollution crisis, told DW.

"We're talking about companies that are extremely powerful, and most decision-makers are afraid to have this conversation. But we need to."

Women sit before crates of assorted plastic waste
How much plastic (even the recycled stuff) does the world need?Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Asfouri

Levi Alvares regards the Alliance to End Plastic Waste as "just another industry-led initiative" that's putting money in the wrong place.

"The main message we have is definitely around prevention, because we're not going to recycle our way out of plastic pollution. This is really about redesigning our relationships to plastics."

Read moreCan we consume less without wrecking the economy?

Martin Baxter, chief policy adviser of UK-based Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) says that while there are some "very good uses for plastic," it's important to understand the drivers that will allow societies around the globe to de-materialize.

"It is about a hierarchy of action," he told DW. "Do I need to use any of this material, how do I reduce the amounts of material I'm using, can I select materials that can easily be recovered, can I design my products so they can be disaggregated at the end of their life?"

A collection of swedes wrapped in plastic, with a note reading FAO store manager: this is pointless plastic
Do vegetables grown with a skin that will be peeled off, really need to be wrapped in plastic?Image: Greenpeace

Plastics as supply-driven products

But for Levi Alvares, the issue is also about making consumers understand to what extent the overuse of plastic is driven by the needs of petrochemical companies.

"As long as we keep extracting fossil fuel, and in a context where producing plastic is more lucrative than producing oil for transport or energy, we're going to use plastics," she said.

According to independent environmental organization Recycling Network, petrochemical companies in the new alliance began investing billions in 2014 and plans to do so through 2030 in rolling out plastic production capacities. Their €1.32 million solution fund pales in comparison.

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste had yet to comment on any plans to scale back on the production of virgin plastics by the time of publication.

Infographic shows the use of plastic in US, Canada, Europe, Asia and Middle East
Image: DW

For its part, German chemical giant BASF is "placing strong emphasis on developing innovative packaging solutions that contribute to sustainability," according to Christian Zeintl, of BASF's media relations team.

Zeintl told DW that plastics "help improve and maintain living standards, hygiene and nutrition around the world." Referring to a 2016 plastics and sustainability report by Trucost and the American Chemistry Council , he argued that replacing them with alternatives could raise environmental costs nearly fourfold, and therefore ultimately "do more harm than good." 

"Even as we work aggressively to reduce plastic waste in the environment, we must maintain the critical benefits that plastics bring to people and communities," he told DW. "It is not either/or. With a thoughtful, comprehensive and strategic approach, we can do both."

Read moreHow the UK slowly turned against single-use plastics

Levi Alvares challenges both the mutual inclusion of such a conclusion, as well as the use of material substitution modelling to predict environmental damage, because that, she says, is missing the point.

"The conversation is about how we use our resources and what kinds of products we package," because pollution as a result of plastic manufacture is a long, pervasive and multifaceted journey.

"It starts when they extract the raw materials from the ground," she says, "then you have greenhouse gases emissions, pollution of the waters, and the way it is handled at waste management stage and if it ends up in the environment, it will have an impact on the ecosystem."

It will, it has, and it does. Just as a forward-thinking article gently warned it would. All those years ago.