Plastic Garbage: Wake Up and Smell the Oil

The plastic pollution global crisis continues unabated. Plastic garbage across the planet is killing many millions of animals annually. Billions of nanoparticles of plastic have entered our food chain and we are eating plastic garbage. Plastic is a toxic material and takes hundreds of years to completely breakdown and degrade.

Crude oil and plastic garbage

The petrochemical (oil and gas) industry is relying on the world’s insatiable appetite for plastic for its future growth. This was the conclusion of a report by Carbon Tracker, published in September 2020. The industry is concerned that it will not recover from the dramatic drop in fuel consumption in the global transport sector caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Cleaner renewable energy is also becoming cheaper and more popular. As plastic is made from crude oil, the industry is now seeing plastics as the biggest driver of future demand.

Plastic production has increased around 4% every year since 2000 and the industry expects that rate of growth to continue, driven mainly by demand from developing countries.

More than USD200 billion has been spent by the industry on chemical and plastic manufacturing plants in the United States and there are plans to invest at least another USD400 billion in the next five years thereby expanding the supply of virgin plastics by a quarter. It is now expected that plastic production will triple by 2050.

“The plastics industry, in its assumption of a doubling of demand for plastics in the next 10, 20 years or so, is making a bet that humanity will fail to find any solutions to reduce, substitute or recycle plastic,” said report author Kingsmill Bond, energy strategist at Carbon Tracker.

The plastic cycle, from production to disposal, releases roughly twice as much carbon dioxide as producing a tonne of oil for energy purposes, thus making a global warming situation worse. This apart from the serious harm to the wellbeing of all biological life on Earth caused by the plastic waste dumped in land and marine environments.

In a recent report Interpol warned that criminal networks are profiting from this “overwhelming” level of plastic garbage by burning and dumping rubbish that was supposed to be recycled. In 2019, American exporters shipped more than 454 million kilograms of plastic garbage to 96 countries ostensibly to be recycled. Much of that plastic garbage, often containing the hardest-to-recycle plastics, instead ended up in rivers and oceans.

Image of plastic garbage stored outside

As people’s concern about global warming and the climate crisis caused by burning fossil fuel grows, the industry is racing to make more plastic. It now faces two problems: Many markets are already saturated with plastic, and only a few countries are still willing to continue to be a dumping ground for the world’s plastic trash.

It seems that the industry thinks it has found a solution to both these problems in Africa. It has been reported that the industry’s strategy for the future is to flood Africa with plastic. The industry’s powerful lobbies are putting pressure on certain key African countries to relax their restrictions on the use of single use plastics and also to continue to accept the importation of plastic trash.

Last year 180 countries signed a global agreement, the Basel Convention, to stop the importation of foreign plastic garbage as from next year. As you can imagine, this agreement was strongly opposed by the industry. “It was the United States against the world,” said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, a non-profit that lobbies against the plastic waste trade. “I think they were in shock.”

It seems that the industry sold the public the idea that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled even though it knew that to be untrue. This striking revelation was the result of a Frontline investigation carried out in the US by the National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting Service and the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

The investigation revealed that the industry’s and policymakers’ claims that plastic garbage is valuable because it can be cleaned, separated and recycled were, and still are, lies. Plastic waste is not valuable and it never has been and the industry has known this all along, at least since the early 1970s. Of all plastic produced less than 10 percent has ever been recycled. Recycling plastic is costly and separating waste is not feasible. Industry reports show that the cost of using oil to make plastic is so low that recycling plastic waste cannot be justified economically.

Image of plastic garbage in 20 foot containers for export

It is a fact that plastic degrades with each recycling process. A degradation of resin properties and performance occurs during the initial manufacturing. The degradation continues as plastic ages. More degradation takes place in each recycling process. Most plastic cannot be recycled, some can be recycled once and even less can be recycled twice. After that, it is just waste that will continue to pollute the planet for hundreds of years.

The stark reality is that plastic recycling is an economic dead end and a futile enterprise. It is not so much an unwillingness to recycle plastic as an admission that plastic for all intents and purposes is ultimately unrecyclable. The petrochemical industry’s strategy is to continue to produce this toxic material even as the Earth is in the throes of an ecocide of planetary proportions caused entirely by humans. This is not something we can allow them to do. We must stop buying plastic.

This article was published in the Times of Malta on the 25th November 2020


Oil industry betting future on shaky plastics as world battles waste

The Future’s Not in Plastics: Why plastics demand won’t rescue the oil

Big Oil Is in Trouble. Its Plan: Flood Africa With Plastic

How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled

How many times can that (plastic) be recycled?