Fossil companies are one of the main sources of financing behind a US$186-billion investment boom in raw material factories that will drive a 40% increase in plastics production and risk “near permanent pollution of the Earth”, The Guardian reports in an exposé published last week.
The cash infusion from companies like ExxonMobil Chemical and Shell Chemical dates back to 2010 and translates into a dramatic increase in a “global plastic binge which is already causing widespread damage to oceans, habitats, and food chains,” the UK-based paper states.
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And the “cracking” facilities destined to produce raw materials for an array of everyday plastic products take in the very feedstock that anti-fossil campaigners, renewable energy advocates, and electric vehicle enthusiasts have been working with increasing success to keep in the ground.
“Around 99% of the feedstock for plastics is fossil fuels, so we are looking at the same companies, like Exxon and Shell, that have helped create the climate crisis,” said Carroll Muffett, President of the U.S. Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “There is a deep and pervasive relationship between oil and gas companies and plastics.”
He added that “we could be locking in decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realizing we should use far less of it.”
Greenpeace UK Senior Oceans Campaigner Louise Edge agreed that “we are already producing more disposable plastic than we can deal with, more in the last decade than in the entire twentieth century, and millions of tonnes of it are ending up in our oceans.” The Guardian notes that plastics produced each year roughly equal the weight of all humanity.
For American Chemistry Council (ACC) Chief Economist Kevin Swift, the boom is easy explain.
“I can summarize in two words: shale gas,” he told The Guardian. “There has been a revolution in the U.S. with the shale gas technologies, with the fracking, the horizontal drilling. The cost of our raw material base has gone down by roughly two-thirds.”
“The link between the shale gas boom in the United States and the ongoing—and accelerating—global plastics crisis cannot be ignored,” agreed CIEL Staff Attorney Steven Feit. “All this buildout, if allowed to proceed, will flood the global market with even more disposable, unmanageable plastic for decades to come.”
A Guardian investigation last year revealed that most of the million plastic bottles sold around the world each minute end up in landfills or at sea. And “campaigners warn that despite the rising tide of concern, powerful corporations are pressing ahead with a new generation of plastic production facilities that will swamp efforts to move the global economy away from single-use, throwaway plastic products,” the paper now notes.
“Although the majority of the new investment is in the U.S., the impact will ripple outwards in the form of vast new supplies of raw materials for plastics being transported to Europe and China,” adds Guardian reporter Matthew Taylor. The ACC casts the increase as a source of hundreds of thousands of jobs that ultimately reduces environmental damage, citing a study it produced in 2016.
“Advanced plastics enable us to do more with less in almost every facet of life and commerce,” said Council Vice President of Plastics Steve Russell. “From reducing packaging, to driving lighter cars, to living in more fuel-efficient homes, plastics help us reduce energy use, carbon emissions, and waste.”
The Guardian report has at least one environmental design and sustainable product specialist half-serious about throwing in the towel, searching for ways to divert the cascade of new plastic waste rather than trying to cut it off at the source.
“When one is flooded with cheap plastic there is no incentive to recycle. There is also not a chance, with that kind of investment, that there is going to be any kind of ban of single-use plastics,” reasons  TreeHugger’s Lloyd Alter. “If anything, there will be more bans of bans.” That means “about the only thing worth doing with it is probably going to be burning it like they do in Scandinavia, but that has a bigger carbon footprint per kWh than burning coal.”
With that in mind, Alter’s tongue-in-cheek “modest proposal” is for builders to turn away from natural materials with low embodied energy. “Perhaps it is better to turn it into foam insulation and plastic building materials than it is to burn it,” he writes, “since leaving it in the ground is obviously not an option that is on the table.”
There are enough other health and environmental problems with plastics that Alter says he doesn’t mean the proposal to be taken seriously. “But the fact is, we are faced with an insurmountable problem of an industry that insists on making more plastics, in a world with no room for it.”