It is important to understand where plastic comes from and who is benefitting from the wholesale devastation of our planet.
Over 99 per cent of plastic is produced from chemicals that are derived almost entirely from fossil fuels, i.e. natural gas liquids (NGL) and crude oil. For this reason plastic manufacturing plants are located where fossil fuel is developed. Petrochemical companies that depend on NGL derived ethane in order to produce plastic, cluster around locations where natural gas is extracted from the ground. For example, the shale gas boom in the US is driving a massive expansion in new plastic manufacturing infrastructure in the US Gulf region.
Naphtha is another key ingredient in the manufacture of plastic. Naphtha is a product of crude oil refining. Plastic manufacturers using Naphtha would cluster around oil refineries. Key players in Naphtha production are companies with oil refining capacity, such as BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Shell and the Chinese CNPC that together account for over 50 per cent of global Naphtha production.
The proximity of the plastic manufacturing industry to the oil and gas extraction and refining plants has led to corporate vertical integration, which means that major oil and gas producers own plastics companies and major plastics producers own gas and oil companies.
The name of most plastic types starts with the letters ‘poly’. The reason for this is that generally speaking plastics are made from organic polymers. These polymers are giant molecules made by linking long chains of smaller molecules called monomers. A molecule is a group of atoms bonded together, representing the smallest fundamental unit of a chemical compound that can take part in a chemical reaction. A molecule would be called organic because it contains carbon. The presence of carbon atoms gives molecules the ability to form chains.
Ninety per cent by weight of all plastics produced are of the following types: Polyethylene (PE); Polypropylene (PP); Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC); Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) and Polystyrene (PS).
The overwhelming majority of plastics, including plastic packaging, can be traced to the product streams of Ethylene and Propylene. Ethylene and propylene are called Olefins. Olefins are the basic chemical building blocks for the production of many petrochemical products, including plastics. Propylene is produced as a co-product of ethylene production. Ethylene is derived from either NGL or naphtha.
Single-use plastic is the fastest growing category of plastics and also the biggest contributor to the plastic pollution crisis. About 34 per cent of plastic use in the US and 40 per cent of plastic use in Europe is for single-use packaging.
We know that the ongoing plastic pollution crisis is causing the irreversible degradation of the marine ecosystems, the death of tens of millions of marine birds and sea creatures and the systematic destruction of Earth’s life support system that keeps us alive. In the face of this situation, the petrochemical industry’s reaction is to continue to expand its plastics production facilities, thus fuelling the already critical plastics pollution crisis until we all go irreversibly over the edge. Plastic production is planned to increase by 40 per cent in the next 10 years.
Louise Edge, Greenpeace’s UK senior ocean campaigner, said: “We are already producing more disposable plastic than we can deal with, more in the last decade than in the entire 20th century and millions of tons of it are ending up in the oceans.” The Guardian newspaper reported that the amount of plastic produced in one year is roughly the same as the entire weight of humanity.
Scientists have warned us that the planet is risking permanent and irreversible contamination by plastic as we speak
At current trends, plastic will account for 20 per cent of all total global oil consumption by 2050. In the wake of the natural gas boom, the United States is expected to surpass the Middle East to become the largest exporter of naphtha by 2020. This escalation in naphtha production is expected to create a global surplus of supply over demand of 14 million metric tons by 2020. This will no doubt cause the industry to produce more useless plastic items for plastic-crazed humanity.
It is interesting to know that Europe was the world’s largest producer of plastics until 2000, after which Asia became the largest plastics producing region in the world. China is targeting to supply more than 50 per cent of the world’s demand for propylene by 2025. It plans to do this by harnessing its huge fossil fuel reserves. Asia’s dominance in the plastics industry did not lead to a reduction in investments in plastic manufacturing infrastructure in Europe which continued and continues to expand. European petrochemical company INEOS is planning a major expansion of two plastic manufacturing facilities and the construction of a new propylene plant in mainland Europe.
Plastics production is important for petrochemical companies as it increases revenues with higher margins and acts as a safety net when oil prices fluctuate. The drive by these companies to develop more and more plastic products is relentless. In America alone, $186 billion has been invested in plastics production infrastructure since 2010.
Plastics production is increasing exponentially when it should be decreasing. Petrochemical companies are now not only responsible for climate change but also for trashing the planet with plastic. Scientists have warned us that the planet is risking permanent and irreversible contamination by plastic as we speak.
Roland Geyer, who revealed in 2017 that the majority of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced since the 1950 had ended up in the seas and oceans, said: “I am now all but convinced that the plastic/waste pollution problem will remain unmanageable (and) without serious source (plastic production) reduction efforts.”
Von Hernandez, global coordinator of the Break Free from Plastic Movement, did not mince words when he said “the plastic pollution problem has become a pervasive and pernicious global problem threatening the integrity of the global commons, if not life itself. It is the ugly twin of climate change – both are spawned, perpetuated and buttressed by fossil fuel interests. The way out of both crisis is to reduce our reliance and dependence on fossil fuels – and that means applying the brakes on the reckless, devil may care, petrochemical industry”.
There are three fundamental untruths that have brought us to this dangerous situation. The first lie is that plastic is harmless – although this idea has now been effectively debunked, it is a fact that the overwhelming majority of people are carrying on as before and have not yet really understood that plastic is a toxic pollutant.
The second lie is that governments have the situation in hand – Europe had so far exported 60 per cent of its plastic waste to China. China has this year stopped all importation of waste from other countries. EU governments are not coping and sending waste to countries with ‘more flexible’ environmental laws.
The third lie is that petrochemical companies are part of the solution – they are the problem, plastic is toxic and they are producing more and more of it.
Politicians and business lobbies have a vested interest in keeping things going just as they are, making only token gestures designed to deceive people into thinking that they get this – bollocks! This is our life, our Earth, our home, so remember, plastic is a choice, your choice.
David Marinelli is a researcher on human ecology and sustainability.
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