Despite consumers calling on companies across the globe to be more environmentally friendly, the world is producing more single-use plastic than ever before, with 139 million metric tons (MMT) going into rubbish bins last year.
According to the Plastic Waste Makers Index from Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation, this represents a 4.5 per cent increase from 2019, meaning almost one extra kilogram of plastic was generated for every person on the planet in 2021.
The report added that single-use plastics are “not only a pollution crisis, but a climate one”, generating 450 million MMT of carbon dioxide last year – almost equivalent to annual greenhouse gas emissions produced by the UK.
It also found that the vast majority (98 per cent) of single-use plastics continue to be produced from fossil fuels, only a small drop from the 99 per cent recorded four years ago.
Forrest said that in order to eliminate plastic pollution within the next decade, we must abandon the idea that the petrochemical industry will transform of its own accord.
“The fossil-fuel giants aren’t tackling the problem of plastics – it’s the opposite, they’re making even more of a product that threatens our people and planet,” Forrest said in the report.
“We need a fundamentally different approach, that turns the tap off on new plastic production. We need a “polymer premium” on every kilogram of plastic polymer made from fossil fuel. We need financial incentives that encourage re-use and recycling and the build of new, critical infrastructure.
“Better waste management is part of the solution – it is paramount that we halt the increase in pollution and the threat to our health from microplastics. But that effort must be combined with reducing the production of new plastics from fossil fuels.”
The report noted that it is “almost always cheaper” for petrochemical giants to continue producing new single-use plastics from fossil fuels instead of reusing or recycling them.
In wealthy nations, where waste collection is funded via taxation, plastic waste is typically incinerated, landfilled or exported. Whereas in every other nation, which includes 85 per cent of the world’s population, waste collection is chronically underfunded, widely mismanaged and plastic pollution is ubiquitous.
“The global intake of raw virgin materials and single-use plastics continues to rise. Most plastic is left un-recycled and single-use plastic accounts for more than a third of our global annual plastic production,” Rockefeller Asset Management president and chief investment officer Casey Clark said in the report.
“The trajectory is disturbing and has implications for ecosystems, biodiversity, human health, and climate ambitions.”
US-based ExxonMobil, which has operated in Australia since 1895, remains the largest producer of polymers bound for single-use plastics, generating 6 million tons in 2021.
Collectively, the following 20 petrochemical companies accounted for more than 50 per cent of single-use plastic waste in the world:
- ExxonMobil (US)
- Sinopec (China)
- Dow (China)
- Indorama Ventures (Thailand)
- Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia)
- LyondellBasell (Netherlands)
- PetroChina (China)
- Reliance Industries (India)
- INEOS (UK)
- Alpek SAB de CV (Mexico)
- Braskem (Brazil)
- Borealis (Austria)
- TotalEnergies (France)
- Lotte Chemical (South Korea)
- Formosa Plastics Corp (Taiwan)
- SIBUR (Russia)
- Rongsheng Group (China)
- Jiangsu Hailun Petrochemical (China)
- China Resources Chemical (China)
- China Energy Investment Group (China)
The report recommendations investors engage with investees or use voting rights to stop the building of new fossil fuel-based polymer facilities, as well as demand clear targets from manufacturers regarding their recycled polymer production.
It also pushes for investors to lend public support for policies that promote further investment in plastics collection and enter long-term forward contracts for recycled plastics at fixed and fair prices.
The report is also calling on polymer producers to set a minimum 20 per cent target by 2030 for recycled products, reducing the need for fossil fuel feedstock in the production process.
Recommendations for policymakers include putting a levy on fossil-fuel polymer production or consumption, partnering with plastic waste collection recycling facilities, setting targets on overall plastic circularity and creating funds to support waste management systems in countries most impacted by plastic pollution.
Despite the disheartening results, the report did note two companies that have already been producing recycled polymers at scale: Taiwan-based Far Eastern New Century and Thailand-based Indorama Ventures.
These two companies alone represent 20 per cent of global "PET bottle-to-bottle recycling capacity" – indicating that petrochemical companies can play a critical role in the transition towards a circular plastics economy.
In 2021, Far Eastern New Century generated 11 per cent of recycled single-use plastic polymers, with Indorama Ventures trailing behind at six per cent.
The report noted that petrochemical companies making more ambitious circulatory commitments are all active in markets where there are more progressive and exacting regulations that support the economics of recycling – specifically, in Europe, USA, and parts of Asia (India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan).
“Outside these regions, expecting companies to commit any capital to recycling projects that deliver substandard returns compared to virgin polymer production is likely at odds with their fiduciary duty to shareholders,” the report said.
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