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Humanity Is Drowning in Plastic

Coca-Cola makes 100 billion plastic bottles a year, and recycling isn’t stopping the build-up of waste. We need government action to rein in the plastics industry.

A wheel loader moves discarded plastics and other materials at the ALBA sorting center for the recycling of packaging materials on August 15, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty

Avoiding plastic is the new radical chic. On April 21 the Guardian ran a long story suggesting that “zero-waste shops” are the way to “avert catastrophe.” Lifestyle magazines champion bamboo toothbrushes and buying grains in bulk. Last year at least five books were published on living without plastic, and plastic-free community groups have popped up across Europe and North America. Many middle-class shoppers are so scared to be seen using plastic bags that they end up with a massive pile of canvas tote bags at home — one for each time they showed up at the supermarket empty-handed.

This trend is particularly strong in the UK. Many Britons watched David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, a 2017 BBC series that showed the tragic consequences plastic waste has for wildlife. This led to a lot of guilt and a fair bit of green proselytizing. As one reviewer put it “If you are still getting over the albatrosses feeding their young plastics on Blue Planet 2, now is the time to go and manically recycle.”

But this energy is misdirected. Amid all the fuss about coffee cups and recycling, there’s one thing that we never hear about: the plastics industry. Since plastic drink bottles first appeared in the 1970s, global plastic production has increased twenty-fold, and it is expected to quadruple again by 2050. Yet the problem is still framed as a matter of consumers’ individual conscience. That suits the plastics industry just fine. When Theresa May proposed a tax on plastic packaging — the world’s first — the British Plastics Federation said that it was “very disturbed” at her tone and pointed out that “littering” was a matter of “personal behavior.”

In reality, the massive expansion of plastics production makes a mockery of attempts to mitigate the effects through eco-conscious consumerism. Fracking has led to a glut of cheap plastic feedstock and what the president of the American Chemistry Council called “an astonishing gain in competitiveness” in chemical and plastics manufacturing — keeping production rising. Instead of turning off the “tap” of cheap plastics, the industry is building facilities that will lock us into mass plastic production for decades. This is what needs controlling.

The Plastics Front Line

Jim Ratcliffe is Britain’s richest man, with a net worth of about $24 billion. So proud is he of this fact that before the Sunday Times published its Rich List last year, he contacted an editor to point out that his wealth had been underestimated in previous rankings. The Queen knighted him for “services to business” last year. We might doubt if his riches are really worth celebrating. For one thing, he rose to the top on a sort of plastic bubble.

His multinational petrochemical company Ineos produces more plastic than any other firm in Europe, and, like many US energy companies, it’s investing in more. Ineos recently announced that as well as expanding its recently upgraded plastics facilities in Norway and Scotland, it would spend more than $3 billion on a new factory in Belgium. Often referred to as “crackers,” these factories crack ethane molecules in half and turn them into ethylene, the base chemical for most plastics.

Ineos used to get its ethane from North Sea crude oil, but now uses fracked ethane from the US. Tapping into the fracking bonanza, it commissioned the construction of eight ships — total cost: $2 billion — to carry ethane across the Atlantic. This has helped Ineos’s Scottish facility double its plastics output, even before planned upgrades. Despite their proclaimed environmental ambitions, EU countries have offered the firm financial support and loan guarantees. While there isn’t much fracking in the UK — only small earthquakes are allowed before drilling must stop — Ineos is lobbying the government to loosen fracking laws.

As ethical consumers swap tips on refillable laundry detergents, the plastic boom continues unabated. Ethylene is now so cheap to produce that it’s no sweat for Coca-Cola to make 100 billion plastic bottles a year. Since shale gas became plentiful, the US chemical and plastics industry has invested more than $200 billion in new infrastructure, especially for crackers and related facilities along the Gulf Coast. Chemicals and plastics are already especially profitable for firms like ExxonMobil, and they are set to become even more important. New facilities should allow production of ethylene and propylene (another common base chemical for plastics) to increase by more than a third by 2025. Right now, about 8 percent of the world’s oil is used for plastics, but as production increases, that figure is expected to grow to 20 percent by 2050.

People are more likely to be concerned about where plastics end up, than how they are produced: we worry about garbage patches in the ocean or beaches strewn with packaging waste. But the downsides begin well before plastics are disposed of. “We’re really trying to paint a more holistic picture of what the impact of plastics are, starting at the wellhead,” Priscilla Villa, an Earthworks campaigner in Texas, told me. “When we talk about fracked gas, we’re talking about fracked plastic.”

Some communities that Villa works with are just a few hundred meters from petrochemical facilities or find themselves surrounded by the industry. They see firsthand health impacts that go well beyond consumer concerns like potential exposure to phthalates in baby diapers or endocrine disruption from take-away packaging. For the underprivileged, the dangers start with things like industrial storage tanks near their homes. Late March and early April saw two petrochemical fires in the greater Houston area, causing one death and huge pollution. During such incidents, people in nearby communities receive “shelter in place” instructions that would seem apocalyptic to most Americans: Saran wrap your doors and windows, turn off your air conditioning (no matter how hot it is), move to the center of the house, and wait for the all-clear. (Saran wrap, no surprise, is made from ethylene.)

Yet plastics injustice, as it might be called, is not on many environmentalists’ radar. Some are rightly concerned with communities in the Global South that have become overrun with imported Western trash. Villages in Southeast Asia reek of burning plastic, and over half the waste in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East is openly dumped. But the other front of the war on plastic has been forgotten. Meadhbh Bolger, a resource justice campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe, told me about a talk she recently gave in Leuven, Belgium, less than an hour from the site of Ineos’s planned new “cracker.” No one had heard about the cracker — and she was speaking to graduate students in sustainable development. You can’t help but think that if she had been speaking about avocados wrapped in plastic, many of the students would have spoken up, outraged, ready to denounce their fellow consumers.

Plastic Cups Overfloweth

When the petrochemical industry addresses the plastic problem at all, it frames it as a waste management issue. Never does it recognize that we need to stop making so much plastic to start with. Most of it ends up as waste that we’ll be dealing with forever, perhaps as an invisible part of our food chain or, if it’s burned, our air.

For decades, the industry has blamed consumers for littering and heralded recycling as the be-all, end-all solution. However, the global plastic-recycling rate is less than 20 percent, and even if it reaches 50 percent by 2050 — considered a best-case scenario — increased production means that plastic pollution will still double by then, possibly leaving the ocean with more plastic than fish. Recycling itself requires energy, and plastics degrade in quality when they are melted down; the polymers in a soda bottle, for example, can only be reused in another bottle five or ten times.

When it needs a break from blaming Western consumers, the industry points the finger at Asia, where most plastic enters the ocean. The Trump administration is pushing this narrative. Doubtless countries such as China do need more recycling and waste infrastructure. But one reason the infrastructure is so inadequate is that it’s been overrun with Western trash, mostly low-grade plastic such as berry or yogurt containers. At the start of last year, China came to its senses and placed a ban on imports of post-consumer plastic. Other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia soon became overloaded with plastic waste, and imposed similar bans, although they aren’t always enforced.

“It’s transparently us offshoring our mess,” Sam Chetan-Welsh, a political campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told me. “We’re making crappy packaging and it’s going to other countries to be dumped, burnt, or clog up their waste systems. We chuck it in the bin of the Global South and hope they clean it up.”

Local councils in the UK are burdened with plastic waste, while plastics manufacturers are currently obliged to cover only about 10 percent of waste disposal costs. Both groups usually pay export companies to take the problem off their hands, meaning that two-thirds of plastic in UK recycling bins ends up abroad. The plastic is considered “recycled” once it’s on a ship at port. The government issues the export company a credit — no matter if the plastic later gets dumped in the ocean — and the Environment Agency doesn’t inspect overseas recycling sites or confirm that the plastic ever arrives. Moreover, the export companies aren’t honest about how much plastic they ship out. The Guardian recently found that British firms hungry for these credits had claimed to export tens of thousands of tons more plastic waste than customs had recorded leaving the country. “The system is rife with corruption,” Labour MP Mary Creagh, head of the Environmental Audit Select Committee, told me. “It is open to free-riding. Anyone can be a licensed ‘waste operator.’ Every cowboy in the world is a waste operator.”

Most plastic that isn’t exported goes to landfills or incinerators. Waste companies like to refer to incinerators as “energy recovery” plants, as many are designed to convert waste into heat or electricity. However, such plants are basically “bonfires in a box.” They are a hugely inefficient energy source that creates large amounts of ash. By burning plastic, they also create significant carbon emissions: one London materials consultant told me that incinerators would better be called “skyfill” plants. Most environmentalists agree that letting plastic sit in a landfill, as unappealing as that might sound, would be the better option.

Despite these damaging emissions, governments often treat incineration as a form of recycling. Though the UK environment office’s chief scientific advisor has voiced opposition to incineration, its data still combines “recovery” (read: incineration) and recycling rates. Such accounting measures help justify the incineration infrastructure supported by government in recent years. The amount of plastic waste sent for “recovery” in the UK increased more than six-fold between 2006 and 2016. Overall, more than 40 percent of Europe’s plastic ends up in incinerators.

Many of us, as kids, are taught not to burn plastic, as it can release toxic fumes, yet waste companies somehow sell the idea to policymakers and local councilors. It’s no surprise that incinerators, which emit high levels of particulate matter, are built in low-income areas. “Incineration goes hand in glove with systemic racism and systemic inequality,” Carroll Muffett, the president of the Center for International Environmental Law, told me. “The plants are overwhelmingly located in areas with people of color.”

LondonEnergy, until recently called LondonWaste, happens to be the company that burns my trash — which, despite some effort on my part, contains a good deal of plastic — along with that of several affluent boroughs in North London. Our black bags are sent to the company’s EcoPark (sic!) in Edmonton, one of the city’s most deprived neighborhoods. A visitor, dressed in hazmat gear, can look down at the EcoPark’s canyons of trash and be made to feel small by the vastness of the accumulated material. The smokestack runs 24/7, and the facility will soon be rebuilt and expanded, locking in skyfill for decades to come. (There is, however, a new campaign to stop the rebuild.)

Like petrochemical companies, waste companies such as Viridor and Veolia receive a lot of government support for their incineration efforts. LondonEnergy’s new facility in Edmonton will be financed by public borrowing; the project’s estimated capital costs, which don’t include operating expenses, are about $850 million. Such facilities also receive another form of implicit government support: they are exempted from the EU’s greenhouse-gas-emissions trading scheme, so waste companies don’t have to pay for carbon allowances.

The companies don’t always show their gratitude. An incinerator in Baltimore recently sued the county for $32 million for not providing it with enough waste — testimony to the discouragement of recycling, if ever there was one.

Is Taxing Plastic the Solution?

Plastics-industry firms including ExxonMobil, Shell, DowDuPont, Veolia, and Proctor & Gamble have formed a nonprofit called the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Its mission statement proclaims that plastics “have an important place in our world — but not in our environment.” Never has humanity’s separation from nature been so complete.

Indeed, it’s hard to see how they can achieve this objective while they invest hundreds of billions of dollars in new plastic production infrastructure, and while trade groups formed by similar companies lobby against plastic bag levies or taxes like the one proposed in the UK. The industry also has a history of a different sort of lobbying. Mobil Chemical, part of what is now ExxonMobil, pushed plastic bags on supermarkets in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The UK tax on plastic packaging, if it withstands industry resistance, will apply to products not made of at least 30 percent recycled plastic; it’s tentatively set to come into effect in 2022. The UK is also considering “extended producer responsibility” legislation, so that companies have to pay disposal costs. The proposed regulations also aim to make recycling collection more consistent — so it will be clearer what can be put in a recycling bin — and establish a deposit-bottle scheme like the one many US states have. Ideally, the new laws would also force the industry to design products in a way that reduces waste. For example, if a soda bottler were to forgo dyes and use easy-to-remove labels, its bottles would be more valuable to recycling plants.

It’s heartening that there is cross-party support for some of these measures (unusual for environmental legislation), and that the tax’s stated objective is not to raise revenues but to change industry behavior and influence production decisions. When global oil and gas prices are low, as they have been since 2014, plastic producers have no incentive to use recycled material. It’s cheaper to produce virgin plastics. Governments have to step in to change the accounting equation. Plastics, after all, are not cheap per se. It’s just that their health and environmental costs aren’t being accounted for.

But if a plastics tax is to be fair and win broad public support, it should be designed to minimize economic impacts on people with low incomes — even if that means it will be less effective from an environmental standpoint. It will be more progressive if it’s applied earlier in the supply chain — when fossil fuels become plastic feedstock — because the industry will be more likely to absorb some of the new expenses instead of passing them on to consumers. The UK government hasn’t decided where it will implement its tax, but thankfully it appears to be looking upstream.

Such a production tax has limitations: companies like Ineos might just absorb the cost and keep producing virgin plastics apace. A tax aimed at everyday consumers, visible to shoppers when they bought packets of ramen, would do more to change individual behavior and drive the public conversation. But if a consumer tax might reduce plastic use faster, it wouldn’t be easy to implement — accounting for the different packaging in millions of end products would be a logistical nightmare and it wouldn’t be as fair. Such class-blind environmental policy is what started the gilets jaunes movement: invoking climate change when he proposed a fuel-tax hike Emmanuel Macron placed the burden of change on ordinary car users — and they weren’t happy about it.

The UK’s environment secretary, Michael Gove, has been trying to outdo his European counterparts on plastics. The EU recently banned some single-use plastic items, including straws, but has made no serious move toward a plastics tax. Gove, a Conservative Brexiteer, may take some pleasure in Europe’s dithering. But it’s hypocritical for the UK to tax virgin plastics while also helping companies like Ineos produce more of them. And the Conservatives’ proposed legislation, while ostensibly aiming to change industry behavior, does so only in a very limited way: it treats increased recycling as the end policy goal. “Gove hasn’t got any plans or targets to reduce or cap plastic production,” Julian Kirby, a plastics pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK, told me. “You can recycle more while still producing more. There’s nothing in the government plans to address the fundamental trend of increasing plastic use.”

A plastics tax is not alone sufficient to address the production problem. We also need to stop petrochemical projects before they break ground. In the US, the resistance has already begun. Community groups in Portland, Texas, are trying to block ExxonMobil’s latest cracker, which it plans to build on 1,400 acres of farmland just outside the town, and there are similar efforts across the Gulf Coast and Appalachia.

To match the size and power of the petrochemical industry, the resistance needs force of numbers. It would help if environmentalists put down their shampoo bars, came out of their zero-waste shops, and started actively opposing the interests of Jim Ratcliffe and company. Reacting to Blue Planet II by seeking a purer lifestyle isn’t going to cut it. We can’t afford to Saran-Wrap ourselves off from the problem or fall back on classist assumptions about “good” and “bad” consumers. Choosing a plastic-free shop over Tesco or Walmart is not an option for most people, and in any case, it’s too little, too late. The petrochemical industry is setting up far bigger shops, and it’s these that we need to visit, hopefully with a few banners in hand.