Living on an island makes you more aware that ocean pollution affects you — you're surrounded by it. So it's no surprise that the island where I live banned plastic bags back in 2012 due to growing concerns about plastic pollution in our waterways. This year, our whole county will follow suit. Dozens of other cities and towns have banned bags, straws, and some are starting to outlaw single-use plastics like cutlery. These are good steps toward seriously cutting plastic waste, most of which is never recycled, and too much of which ends up in our oceans.
And yet, the World Economic Forum predicts that in the next two decades, plastic production will double.
That's because oil and gas companies are pivoting. As the demand for their primary products inevitably declines as countries get increasingly serious about climate change, oil and gas companies are turning to plastic manufacturing. Shell is spending $6 billion on a specialized plant that "cracks" ethane, turning it into ethylene, a building block for a variety of plastics. Ethane is a byproduct of fracking — a process of recovering natural gas from ancient shale that's also growing in the United States — so most of the new plastics factories are also here, located close to the fracking operations.
That new Shell factory "is expected to produce up 1.6 million tons of plastic annually after it opens in the early 2020s. It's just the highest profile piece of what the industry hails as a 'renaissance in U.S. plastics manufacturing,' whose output goes not only into packaging and single-use items such as cutlery, bottles, and bags, but also longer-lasting uses like construction materials and parts for cars and airplanes," writes Beth Gardiner in Yale Environment 360.
'There's a great future in plastics' — again
Shell isn't the only oil company working on expanding plastics production: ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco are doing the same. And some chemical companies are heavily involved in plastics, too — "Dow, Mexichem, Westlake Chemical, Braskem, Lotte Chemical and Mitsui Chemicals currently derive more than 80% of their revenues from plastics-related products," according to Forbes.
Despite the bans, all these companies see growth in plastics — ironically, just as Mr. McGuire famously predicted in "The Graduate." In the last decade, over $200 billion has been invested in more than 300 new plastic and plastic-related projects. That's because plastic use is still increasing, with fully 50% of that being single-use plastics, the kind that most often ends up as ocean pollution.
It's worth noting that while the garbage and recycling infrastructure of developing countries are often blamed for plastic pollution, the United States, Ireland and Germany are some of the countries with the highest daily per capita plastic waste. And the U.S. has one of the highest rates of plastic shoreline litter, which is the kind the ends up choking seabirds, or in whale's stomachs or floating in the garbage gyres.
The scope of the crisis
We sure to create a lot of garbage — and much of it is plastic. (Photo: Alan Levine [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)
We haven't had widely available plastics for that long; in 1950, considered the beginning of the plastics era, about 2 million metric tons were made. "By the seventies, we were up to 50 million metric tons a year, and by the nineties, 150 million metric tons. Then production exploded as the Asian economies took off: 213 million metric tons in 2000, then 313 million metric tons in 2010, and now more than 400 million metric tons per year," Rowan Jacobsen details in Outside magazine.
Even though the oil that goes into plastics makes physical products rather than being burned in a car's engine, plastic production uses a lot of energy in every part of its lifecycle, so in addition to the pollution issues, it also contributes to climate change. From the extraction of oil and gas, to its transport, to the ethane cracking and plastic production, to the greenhouse gases produced when it is incinerated or degrades in the environment — every step on its lifecycle adds to the climate crisis.
We are up to 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the world's oceans — more plastic than fish — and there's currently no way to remove it. We can stop adding to the problem, but with significant investments in making more plastic for on-the-go consumers, we may end up adding to the problem.
The European Union has banned single-use plastics starting in 2021, and will require 25% recycled content for plastic bottles. Eight American states have banned plastic bags, along with dozens of other countries in the world. It's a start, but it's not nearly enough to stem the plastic tide that's coming.