The plastics industry is poised for change, and the direction it takes could determine the fate of our oceans and our climate.
The world is suddenly drowning in the raw material needed to make plastic: the byproducts of oil and gas. The fracking boom in the U.S. and the collapse in world oil demand (beginning with the COVID-19 pandemic but expected to accelerate as electric vehicle sales grow) has left fossil fuel suppliers chasing customers for their products.
The plastics industry (which also includes big players in the oil and gas industry) has made a big bet on where that oil and gas would go: plastics. Oil and gas companies have spent almost $90 billion just on new chemical manufacturing facilities linked to shale gas production in the U.S. in the last 10 years alone, with another 133 projects announced. And the industry is planning to spend another $400 billion in order to produce an additional 80 million metric tons of plastic each year.
Their bet is that continuing to sell increasing volumes of plastic will allow for continued profits.
There’s just one problem: The world already has more plastic than it needs, wants or can handle. And the world is starting to push back.
There is a growing cultural shift against single-use plastics, with countries around the world and cities and states across the U.S. imposing restrictions or bans on plastics. Citizens and governments are learning that, while the plastics supply chain may run on cheap fossil fuels, the effects on society and the environment are expensive. A recent CarbonTracker report found that each metric ton of plastic produced imposes $1,000 in “externalities,” or damages to human health and the environment, the costs of which fall on the public. One thousand dollars is just about the sale value of a metric ton of plastic, meaning that all of the new packaging and single-use products made right now have almost no net value.
It’s become increasingly clear that it is not some insatiable public demand for plastic that is driving its rapidly increasing production. Rather, it is the result of petrochemical companies trying to offload their supply onto consumers who, often, would be perfectly happy with less of it.
In fact, there is a great opportunity to limit the plastic pollution that is putting our environment at risk. We can enact producer responsibility legislation that makes sure the companies that produce plastic pay to reclaim and reuse it. We can set standards for products and packaging that incentivize the use of recycled and recyclable materials and that make things easier to repair. And we can ban or limit the sale of the most wasteful single-use plastic items. All of these proposals have momentum at the local and state levels.
Yet one can be sure that with billions of dollars in investment and jobs in plastics manufacturing at stake, the plastics industry will be pushing to do just the opposite – to keep us hooked on plastic and paying the price for its disposal and impact on the environment. A global shift away from plastic would strand the assets and investments oil and gas companies have made in plastics manufacturing in recent years. The industry can be counted on to fight tooth and nail against efforts to limit waste, and to try to convince us all that we cannot live without the plastic bags, straws and foam containers that fill our trash cans and kill the wildlife in our oceans.
Of course, people would experience a difference in their daily lives if we stopped producing new plastic: the things we buy might be slightly more expensive, we may have to spend more time sorting our recycling, and there may not be wrapping or packaging or single-use bags available from stores. But ubiquitous single-use plastic is a relatively recent invention. We lived without it before, and could do so again. And our climate, our oceans and our precious and imperiled wildlife would benefit from us doing so.
The oil and gas industry is poised for its biggest change in decades as people around the world shift away from burning fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. By acting decisively, we can ensure that this change truly results in a cleaner environment.
Photo credit: @brian_yuri via Unsplash
Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Bryn Huxley-Reicher is a policy analyst at Frontier Group focusing on issues related to clean energy and the new economy. He has a BA in applied mathematics focused in earth and planetary sciences from Harvard University.