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Waste Reduction Picks Up as Fossils Look to Plastics to ‘Backstop’ Demand

While Kenya is no superpower of wasteful consumption, its decision last week to ban “almost everything about” plastic bags, “making them, importing them, selling them, using them,” enforced by penalties of up to 48 months in jail or fines of US$38,000, is another negative bellwether for oil producers, Bloomberg writes.

Many fossils now see petrochemicals as the backstop for their industry’s future, the product the world really can’t live without. The International Energy Agency predicts the sector will account for 44% of oil demand growth through 2040.

But rising concern about plastic waste in the environment—vast, floating “garbage patches” in the oceans, micro-plastics in seafood, and predictions that the mass of hydrocarbon-derived, non-biodegradable plastic in the oceans will outweigh that of fish by 2050—challenge that forecast.

Kenya’s prohibition “carries a warning for an oil business that’s depending on petrochemicals—and the plastics made from them—to pick up the slack when we all switch from gas guzzlers to electric cars,” Bloomberg notes. “The days of single-use plastic packaging may already be numbered. And with this stuff making up about a quarter of all the plastic used, that will have a profound impact on the petrochemicals industry.”

Far worse than plastic bags for the environment, the outlet notes, are the plastic bottles that make up a third of the plastic pollution in the oceans. “Recycling them would have a huge impact,” Bloomberg notes, “both on the waste problem and on demand for new petrochemical feedstock.”

Rising global pushback against the persistence of petrochemical plastic waste, and a concurrent increase in plastic recycling, “undermine the petrochemical sector’s need for oil-based feedstocks from both sides: cutting demand for its end products, while boosting the supply of recycled material for the production process.”

Unmentioned in the article, advances in biomaterials pose another long-term threat to oil’s use as a petrochemical feedstock.