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Bulldozer at a landfill site full of plastic

Plastics: A carbon copy of the climate crisis

Ketan Joshi

Science Writer

16 February 2021

This is part of a series of articles and other creative pieces commissioned by ClientEarth to explore the debate around the most important environmental challenges we all face.

In the face of decreasing demand and profit margins to match, fossil fuel companies are seeking a source of alternative income. Their answer? Plastic production. We asked environmental journalist, Ketan Joshi, to take a closer look at the fossil fuel industry's 'plan b', and just how much damage more plastic could possibly do to our already saturated planet.

In 1988, NASA scientist Jim Hansen told the United States Senate that 'the greenhouse effect has been detected, and is changing our climate now.' In that year, carbon emissions from human fossil burning was 20 gigatonnes. In 2020, it was 34.

More than half of all CO2 emissions ever released from the burning of fossil fuels have been released since Hansen’s testimony. The fossil fuel industry persists, because those within it work hard to ensure growth continues unabated.

Today, plastics, a by-product of the fossil fuel industry, are spreading their own unique brand of harm as they rapidly accumulate on Earth. And the very same tactics used to give fossil fuels their staying power are deployed as protection against the headwinds of change.

Climate change and plastics have grown into rhyming environmental travesties. They exist in an interconnected parallel. They share a common carbon origin and they contribute to each other. The industry that generates both delays the cure through distraction, blame and false promise.

After decades of hard work the fossil fuel industry is under threat, and as a consequence, the plastics industry is too. For both, stopping the flow requires deep, systemic change paired with teeth-gritted activism at every level, in every country. A broad range of powerful solutions is available to tackle these problems right at the source.

COVID19 has shattered old habits, and offers a chance to pause, reset and recreate the systems that are allowing harm to proliferate. But the forces looking to expand plastic products, trained for so many years on climate delay, know precisely what they need to do to make worst case scenarios a reality. There is a lot to lose, with little time to waste.

Part 1: The common carbon origin of the uncontrolled experiments

Plastics are produced almost entirely using the byproducts of fossil fuel extraction, with the fate of the industry yoked to oil and gas in particular. While coal has stumbled slightly over the past half-decade, the global oil and gas industries continue to rise. This means an unstoppable flow of cheap raw materials for the manufacture of plastic.

The fossil-fuel industry, the chemical industry, and the plastics industry are one and the same – a three-headed monster.

Refining crude oil creates a by-product known as ‘naphtha’. Drilling oil and gas creates ethane. Both need to be processed in gargantuan petrochemical facilities to build the raw materials for plastic production. It is energy-intensive, dirty and environmentally harmful work.

Hands holding plastic

Rising production of new plastic, hitching a ride on the rocket of the oil and gas industry, has resulted in a flow of this substance into the biosphere on an unprecedented scale, where it will persist for millennia, harming humans and wildlife. “The fossil-fuel industry, the chemical industry, and the plastics industry are one and the same – a three-headed monster”, former US EPA Regional Administrator and president of Beyond Plastics told the New Yorker.

This flow of waste is no accident. In 1956, Lloyd Stouffer, then editor of Modern Packaging Magazine, led the transition from longer-lasting plastics to single-use models. He wrote of his vision, “the package that is used once and thrown away like a tin can or a paper carton represents not a one-shot market for a few thousand units, but an everyday recurring market measured by the billions of units. Your future in packaging…does indeed lie in the trash can”.The largest use for plastic products is the most familiar: packaging has the lion’s share of plastic production, at 146 million tonnes in 2015. In addition to being the biggest use, it also has the largest share that goes directly into waste. It is the encapsulation of food and stuff, in rapidly discarded carbon shells, that drives this problem.

That vision was realised, and the consequences are catastrophic. The 2020 report ‘Breaking the plastic wave’, by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, highlights that 40% of today’s plastic waste ends up in the environment, with up to 150 million metric tons to date. The curve of this crisis is getting steeper.

Plastic waste, everywhere

“The plastic littering our ocean is an atrocity. It’s a testament of humanity’s filthy habits of leaving our trash lingering around everywhere,” said Erik van Sebille, oceanographer and climate scientist at Utrecht University. Erik helped develop a website that visualises the flow of plastic waste, marked by cute rubber duckies. “Plastic has now been found on the most remote places in the ocean, from the deepest trenches to the Arctic Sea ice and halfway down the water columns at 2000 metres. It’s probably more difficult now to find a place where there is no plastic than to find plastic”.

Volunteers collecting plastic waste on a beach
Child's hand holding pieces of plastic pollution

The image of plastic seeping through the oceans after brief usage by humans is evocative of NASA’s visualisations of the flow of carbon dioxide across the atmosphere. They both accumulate, as those producing the problem press harder on the accelerator. Both problems are recent, too, with the steepness of the cumulative cliff occurring in recent decades for both.

“As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment,” wrote Geyer et al. “Humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet”. Climate change, of course, was described in precisely the same way in 1977: an ‘uncontrolled experiment’.

Part 2: What happens if the cliff gets steeper?

SYSTEMIQ’S ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’ report modelled modern plastic usage trends into the future to build a vision of the impacts of ‘business as usual’. If we stay on our path, “annual plastic flows to the ocean are expected to grow from 11 million metric tons in 2016 to 29 million metric tons in 2040”.

If the plastic crisis continues to worsen, it’ll feed the climate crisis too. “By 2050, the [cumulative] greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons – 10-13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget”, wrote the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL), in their “Plastic and Climate” report of 2019. By 2050, the emissions from the lifecycle of plastics could be equivalent to 615 large coal-fired power stations - 2.8 gigatons of CO2 per year.

By 2050, the [cumulative] greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons – 10-13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.

Part of the reason this carbon footprint is so high is that plenty of plastic waste is burned, either for energy or in open pits. By 2040, SYSTEMIQ estimates the carbon emissions in its ‘business as usual’ scenario associated with the open burning of plastic waste, for fuel or disposal, could be 133 million metric tons. A recent analysis published in Source Material by journalist Josephine Moulds found that the UK’s waste-to-energy plants are nearly as emissions intensive as coal-fired power stations, primarily due to the high proportion of plastics discarded in regular ‘black bin bag’ waste.

Despite the wide-reaching impacts of waste, the industry plans to expand. “This is explicitly stated in many strategies from oil producing companies”, says WWF Norway’s Eirik Lindebjerg, leader on Plastics. “It’s a rapidly growing market for oil producers. In Norway it’s already about 19% of Norwegian oil exports going to the petrochemical industry”.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts unchanged demand for the petrochemical products powering plastic, set to comprise 45% of growth for oil and gas mining from 2018 to 2040, in their view. A recent report by analytics firm Carbon Tracker summarises these industry expectations as around 3-4% annual growth.

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The physical reality of this vision of growth is an intensification of public health crises, particularly in communities of colour. A string of petrochemical facilities is under construction or planned in the US, each threatening locals with new sources of air pollution, and each in pre-emption of this preferred future of rapid growth. The facilities disproportionately affect communities already overburdened by the impacts of the plastic production industry, deepening environmental racism. The burden on non-white countries and communities is consistent through the fossil fuel industry’s activities, both for plastics and fossil fuels.

“You’ve probably picked me up because of the article I wrote where I said plastic is ‘solid climate change’. Yeah. It is,” said Dr Deirdre McKay, Senior Lecturer in Social Geography and Environmental Politics at Keele University. Her work has focused on the physical impacts of the rapidly expanding industry. “Plastics are the Vegemite of the petroleum industry,” she says, referencing a salty Australian spread first developed from used yeast discarded by breweries. The sticky black paste could be generously described as an acquired taste and is a good example of an instance of supply leading to demand, rather than the inverse.

Dr McKay describes living and working in areas experiencing the accumulation of plastic waste. “It’s this precarious group of people around the world who are stuck with plastic things that don’t really work,” she says. “You’ve got these informal settlements, surrounded by a bunch of broken plastic stuff, and they can’t really get rid of it”. Much of this is set to worsen, if the dreams of fossil industries are realised.

The perpetual growth of carbon extraction, in supplying the raw materials for both the climate and plastic crises, has caused a constant flow of harmful substances into the biosphere, accumulating at a terrifying rate. The ‘three headed monster’ behind this spies threats to that growth, and is beginning to fight back.

Part 3: How the industry intends to fight the tide and realise a high plastic world

Perhaps the most obvious threat to plastic industry growth stems from rapidly progressing action on controlling greenhouse gas emissions. China, Japan and South Korea are among many countries to have recently established targets to bring emissions to near-zero. Fossil fuel companies are shrinking in value while renewable companies grow. Wind and solar have become cheap, and battery costs keep falling, technologies set to eradicate a huge proportion of fossil fuel demand. The IEA’s optimistic forecasts of the growth of coal, gas and oil are all turning out to be wrong, as are their predictions of flat renewable growth.

Industrial emissions from a plant

A recent analysis from Carbon Tracker is unambiguous: their report is titled ‘The future’s not in plastics’. Lead author Kingsmill Bond said, in a webinar launch, “the oil and petrochemical sectors are betting their future on this growth in plastics demand but that's not going to happen because of the war on plastics. That means peak oil demand and 400 billion dollars of stranded petrochemical [capital expenditure]”. The industry was wobbly even prior to the pandemic. A recent report from CIEL highlights stock market underperformance, ballooning debts, rising renewable competition and slowing plastic demand growth as longer term trends.

The industry pathway to fending off threats to growth is likely comprised of the same tactics used to delay climate action. The most obvious is the flow of post-COVID19 stimulus money into fossil fuel companies, through a range of new subsidies justified on the grounds of economic recovery from COVID19. They are winning on that front, with far more money flowing into ‘brown’ economic stimulus than green.

How we're fighting plastic pollution

Plastic pollution threatens wildlife and worsens climate change. Our team is dedicated to using the power of the law to push for long term solutions that stop plastic pollution.

Other tactics are more subtle. For some time, the plastics industry has papered over the incapacity of recycling systems to deal with the growing mountains of waste. Many plastics cannot be recycled, some only once, and much that can be recycled is burnt or disposed of because it’s still cheaper to make products from virgin plastic.

Recycling, a partial solution to the waste problem, has been intentionally inflated to coax concerned consumers. "If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment," the former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry (now named the Plastics Industry Association) Larry Thomas told the US-based National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service documentary ‘Plastic wars’.

Part of exaggerating recycling’s efficacy was the co-option of a generic ‘recycle’ logo to be used even on plastics that cannot be recycled. That act is defended by industry as a useful designation for sorting facilities, but it created a false impression of environmental safety and guilt-free plastic usage.

A 2019 analysis by analytics firm IHS Markit is brutal about the recycling over-sell. “Current mechanical recycling processes have scale and economics limitations while processes such as chemical recycling are in their technology development infancy,” they write. “From a strategic standpoint, forced regulated solutions have limited ability to deal with massive plastics volumes without scaled technology”.

Despite the technological limitations, the American Chemistry Council has established a target of all plastics to be recycled by 2040, with little to no focus on reducing production. It is akin to fixing an overflowing bathtub by ignoring the tap and hoping for the invention of a better mop.

As Carbon Tracker writes, “there is a very significant gap between the aspirations of the incumbent players for continued high demand growth and our ability to scale collection and recycling infrastructure quickly enough to avoid plastic in the environment”. While the process is useful, the only solution, they say, is to reduce the amount of virgin plastic in the system. Failures in recycling have led to massive flows of plastic into countries thinking they can process this into saleable materials, but ending up with their own mountains of waste. China recently banned imports of plastic waste for this very reason, but other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, are experiencing the same curse.

Very little has changed, with the industry insisting recycling will resolve the bulk of the problem. "I do understand the skepticism, because it hasn't happened in the past, but I think the pressure, the public commitments and, most important, the availability of technology is going to give us a different outcome”, an industry spokesperson told NPR in September last year. The Plastics Industry Association says, in a statement on their site, that they encourage “all companies engaged in plastics manufacturing to make sustainability a guiding principle at all levels of operation”.

The recycling myth is a perfect parallel to the promises of fossil fuel companies around carbon capture and storage, in which grandiose claims to recapture greenhouse gases released from extracting and burning fossil fuels have fizzled - badly.

The current global capacity of carbon capture facilities around the world is 40 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. In 2020, humanity released 39,000 megatonnes. Despite these dizzying proportions, carbon capture plays a central role in the advertising and marketing of fossil fuel companies – a technological promise of a looped flow of carbon that simply does not and will not exist, papering over the possibility of turning the tap off.

The trend can be turned, and it can happen soon. It won’t be easy, but flattening the curve of a crisis never is.

Another insidious parallel is the focus on personal responsibility, to offset the burden of action onto consumers rather than the companies and governments that could act to resolve the problem. In ‘Plastic Wars’, Jim Becker of Chevron Phillips responds to a question about how to achieve the 2040 goal by saying “much more education needs to happen on how to recycle”, a pitch-perfect mirroring of the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to use a ‘carbon footprint’ narrative to shift blame onto those using combustion engines, electricity and planes.

Like recycling, consumer change has its place in a suite of solutions, but is inflated to divert attention away from the source of the problem. It has worked - the stock of plastic waste and greenhouse gases are both accumulating at a terrifying rate, both enabled by consumer blame and false promises of post-use re-capture.

The plastic crisis, true to its status as the cruel cousin of climate change, has grown because it was forced. Suppliers exaggerate the capabilities of recycling through misleading iconography, disconnecting us from the resting place of these fleeting bits of ‘solid climate change’, and blame consumers for the consequences of misinformation. That enables the frictionless flow-through of a harmful substance, from the ground, through our hands, and into the skies, oceans and land, where it causes incredible harm.

The trend can be turned, and it can happen soon. It won’t be easy, but flattening the curve of a crisis never is.

Bulldozer at a landfill site full of plastic
Part of exaggerating recycling’s efficacy was the co-option of a generic ‘recycle’ logo to be used even on plastics that cannot be recycled

Part 4: How to stop it

A correction of decades of consumer blaming is one of the most obvious places to start turning this ship around. “An Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme basically makes the producers of plastic legally responsible for the plastic they put on the market, and financially responsible too,” said Eirik, from WWF Norway. “In Norway, producers pay less tax the more they recycle”. Designing plastics from the ground up is another important component. “A lot of other plastic waste is so dirty or so mixed up that it costs more to recycle than what it gives you in new material”, he said. “But if you manage to create clean plastic streams where you have products that are designed right, it becomes valuable material”. It is not perfect – a May 2020 report for WWF Norway highlighted the fact that recycling rates are only 30%, due to legislative loopholes (the industry ‘producer responsibility organisation’, Grønt Punkt, blames consumers for depositing plastic in residual waste).

Plastic pollution on a beach

Eirik also laments the absence of a global effort to fight plastics on the scale deployed for climate. “Some African countries like Rwanda, and others like Vietnam, the Philippines and Pacific Island States have been in the forefront and pushing for an international convention on plastic pollution”.

The parallels with climate solutions are tough to ignore. SYSTEMIQ’s ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’ report found recently that existing government policies around the world are a good start but will only reduce annual plastic leakage into oceans by 7%. “A far greater scale of action at the system level will be needed to meaningfully address the challenge”. The United States’ new Climate Envoy John Kerry highlighted precisely the same for fossil fuels. “The current promises of countries through the Paris Agreement are insufficient to get the job done".

Part of the problem is insincere action. Talk of a ‘circular economy’ tends to dominate discourse, with similarity to the ‘net zero’ concept within climate action, where some allowance is made for un-removable greenhouse gas emissions as long as they’re offset through, say, planting more trees or capturing carbon and storing it deep underground. Seemingly a reasonable concession that eradication is improbable, it turns out ‘net zero’ is widely abused, taken as a licence to continue the flow of the problem as long as vague promises of offsets are made, far into the future. In the plastics world, too, promises of a circular lifespan for a harmful substance can potentially distract from the need to urgently reduce supply. These are promises to invest in innovative mop technology instead of turning the tap off. The water keeps rising.

Resolving the flow of plastics and greenhouse gases into the biosphere require a full summoning of effort across a broad array of social, political and economic areas, and those must be sustained for decades. ‘Breaking the plastic wave’ identifies these in their ‘system change’ scenario, blending reductions in usage, better recycling and better disposal to reduce ocean leakage rates by 80%, by 2040. Their ‘wedges’ analysis paints a rainbow of curve-bending action that must start now, and be deployed with ambition and concurrence. It’s a familiar visual.

Just like climate, there is no silver bullet – there is ‘silver buckshot’, in which companies, governments, industry groups, citizens and advocates all push in their own ways to effect change.

“I’m sitting here at home where I’ve been for almost a year on a university campus in England, looking at all of my plastic accoutrements. How do you shift this? Every time I get depressed about it, I see something else that somebody has invented or changed. And I think ‘Okay, this could be better’”, said Dr Deirdre McKay. “Sure, we might want a clear sheet of repellent to go across food. That’s handy. But do we need to necessarily make it from petroleum?”.

For both fossil fuels and plastics, some requirements will linger. Some flights, such as transporting medical equipment, can’t be avoided. Many with disabilities highlight the utility of plastic straws for those with limited mobility. ‘Need’ must be formulated with justice, equity and fairness in mind as efforts to stamp out bad-faith greenwashing continue.

Carbon, as fuel, casing and containers, became baked into our lives. Hollow promises around future technologies and deceptions around the capabilities of recycling are giving plastics the staying power that coal, oil and gas fought so hard to win in the previous century.

But just like climate change, a real counter to that will come when sustained effort spreads, aligns and sings in harmony. Public protest, lifestyle change, policy, regulation and technological invention all must be summoned in unison. Pulling plastics into the climate fight means rhyming crises can be silenced together.

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