What do the plastics and climate crises have in common? The same someone profiting from the status quo

What do the plastics and climate crises have in common? The same someone profiting from the status quo

plastic bottle caps
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In a few important ways, tackling plastic pollution feels less complicated and somewhat removed from the climate crisis.

Individual countries can take meaningful action — by investing in recycling infrastructure, offering incentives to companies working on advanced recycling technologies and alternative materials, and banning certain single-use items — without the time and effort it takes to build a global consensus. The visuals of plastic pollution also have galvanized the public in a way that decades of warnings about greenhouse gases couldn’t, and this public outcry has motivated the private sector. With their reputations at stake, multinational corporations that sell products packaged in disposable plastic have a tremendous incentive to find alternatives.

Still, plastics and climate are linked — perhaps to more of an extent than most people realize — and they share some of the same underlying challenges. In both cases, someone is profiting from the status quo. And whether it be the fossil fuel industry or the broader petrochemical industry, the corporations profiting from the problem have been reluctant to envision a future where they could profit, instead, from the solutions to the problem.

While governments, various private-sector actors and private citizens have joined forces in an effort to find alternatives to single-use, plastics manufacturers have been largely AWOL. In fact, they’re increasing production. It goes without saying that this makes ridding the world of plastic pollution more difficult.

"We have to get other players to the table," Nina Goodrich, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, said during last week’s GreenBiz webcast, "Circular Packaging: The State of Play. " "The resin companies are not at the table yet, and it’s going to be difficult if the resin companies don’t help."

Plastic resins — which come in a variety of chemical recipes — are the main base of all plastics. Cooking up resins is a complicated process, but basically, resins comprise polymers, polymers are made up of hydrocarbons, and most hydrocarbons found on Earth naturally occur in crude oil. The top 10 plastics and resin manufacturers, according to the Polymer Property Database, include chemical giants such as Dow Chemical and INEOS, and oil and gas companies such as Lyondell Basell, ExxonMobil and Chevron Phillips.  

Some of these companies have begun investing in chemical recycling, which turns plastic waste into feedstock for new material. However, these efforts are set against the backdrop of a gigantic, industry-wide expansion of petrochemical and plastic production.

The World Economic Forum projects that plastic production and use will grow 3.8 percent per year through 2030. WEF assumes this rate of growth will slow to 3.5 percent per year from 2030 through 2050, according to a new report from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and a coalition of environmental organizations.

The report goes on to point out that in September 2017, the American Chemistry Council reported a total of $164 billion of investment in 260 new or expanded production facilities for petrochemicals (calculating from a 2010 baseline). In September 2018, the council reported an additional $36 million in planned investment in 70 new or expanded facilities.

This huge uptick in plastic production has been spurred by the shale gas boom in the United States, which drove down the cost of natural gas liquids, a raw material used to produce plastic resin, the council’s chief economist, Kevin Swift, told The Guardian in 2017.

In other words, we’re drowning in plastic not because of demand, but because of supply.

Trash into treasure

Much of the conversation during the circular packaging webcast centered on creating demand for recycled materials.

"We have to create the pull from the manufacturing side to allow more of this stuff to be collected, sorted and resold," said Christopher Davidson, director of corporate sustainability at WestRock, an Atlanta-based paper and packaging company that makes such items as paper-based food containers and six-pack rings.   

Deanna Bratter, senior director of public benefit and sustainable development for Danone North America, agreed. The French food giant has set itself up as a leader in circular packaging and circular food systems.

"What it comes down to are the markets. The recyclers the MRFs (materials recovery facilities) are going to collect and sort the material that has a market value for them because that’s how they’re going to stay in business," Bratter said. "If we don’t make really bold commitments to purchase the end materials so we can use it in our recycled content, we’re not actually creating the circular economy vision that we need."

Commitments from big brands such as Danone, Coca Cola and Nestlé to use more recycled plastics in their packaging appears to have motivated the petrochemical industry to take a more serious look at chemical recycling, according to a recent story in the Houston Chronicle.

A recent report from the American Chemistry Council estimates that chemical recycling could create $9.9 billion in economic output in the U.S. economy annually, including $4.1 billion related to new products generated by chemical recycling facilities and $2.2 billion in annual payroll.

Many smaller chemical companies are already working in this area. And the German chemical giant BASF recently started using recycled chemicals to produce cheese packaging, refrigerator components and insulation panels. Several other large petrochemical companies, such as Houston-based LyondellBasell, Saudi Arabia’s SABIC, and the French energy company Total are investing in improving chemical recycling technologies.

However, the general industry line is that chemical recycling technologies need more research and development to reach commercial scale. Some industry leaders estimate it could take five to 10 years for these technologies to fully mature. Others say it could take 10 more years on top of that to build plants to support a major chemical recycling industry.

Which begs the question, if there’s demand for chemically recycled plastic, why not simply convert some of the hundreds of facilities planned for petrochemical production into chemical recycling plants?

"There is no way for us to do this alone," Bratter said. "It’s absolutely going to take significant collaboration with partners in manufacturing, with consumers and retailers to make this come to life."