Introduction: Made in Belgium.
On November 17, 1909, the Belgium-born Dr. Leo H. Baekeland explained Bakelite at the Franklin Institute (Baekeland, 1910). PlasticsEurope, the Association of Plastics Manufacturers, describes Bakelite as the first real synthetic and mass-produced plastic (PlasticsEurope, 2020). However, plastic is a form of fossil fuel since natural resources like gas and crude oil are its core ingredients (Joyce, 2019).
In 2014, the plastic’s share of global oil consumption was six percent. In 2050, it will be twenty percent, and the weight of plastic in the oceans will be larger than that of all fish living in them (World Economic Forum, 2016). On July 29, 2019, humankind used more natural resources than the Earth can regenerate in one year (Pytel, 2019). Humans need 1.75 Earths to amass the ecological resources to meet their current needs (Global Footprint Network, 2020). Every single actor in the plastic value chain who introduces a new piece of plastic or virgin plastic contributes to depleting natural resources.
The Demand for Plastic
Figure 1: Global Oil Production
Using resources faster than one can regenerate them is a practice one cannot sustain. Sustained is defined by Merriam-Webster (n.d.) as “maintained at length without interruption or weakening.” The plastic age we now live in is not likely to end anytime soon, as Figure four indicates (GRID-Arendal, 2020). On the contrary, global plastic production will increase exponentially. Therefore, tackling the problems that arise from plastic production and its use is the task at hand. A job Thompson et al., 2009, consider a science-policy issue. Plastic’s raw materials, natural gas, crude oil, and coal, are fossil fuels. These resources, taken from the Earth’s crust, are finite and non-renewable (Höök and Tang, 2013).
Since 2000, the demand for the omnipresent (even in environmentally-friendly products such as wind turbines and solar panels and practices such as insulation) plastics has doubled. The petrochemicals which turn oil and gas into plastics will account for nearly half of the demand for oil in 2050 and consume fifty-six billion cubic meters of natural gas by 2030 (International Energy Agency, 2018).
Worldometer is a provider of world statistics led by a team of researchers. The initiative has no political, governmental, and corporate affiliation. The UK government, Johns Hopkins, and Oxford University Press consider Worldometer a trusted authority (Worldometer, no date). The team projects that the world has roughly forty-seven years of oil, fifty-two years of gas, and one hundred thirty-three years of coal left at the current consumption rate and excluding undiscovered reserves (Worldometer, 2020, a, b, c).
Producers in the US are creating a new plastics corridor in states with fracking wells rich in ethane. Royal Dutch Shell built a six billion US dollar ethane cracking plant near Pittsburg with an expected annual production of 1.6 million tons and a permitted CO2 emission equivalent to the emission of 480,000 cars (Gardiner, 2019). Since 2010, the US saw an investment in three hundred thirty-three plastic and other chemical plants upward of two hundred million US dollars. Judith Enck, the founder of Beyond Plastics and a former regional director for the US Environmental Protection Agency, sees plastics as Big Oil’s plan B in response to fewer sales due to alternative energy. Mrs. Enck warns: “If even one builds a quarter of these ethane cracking facilities, it is locking us into a plastic future that is going to be hard to recover from” (County Sustainability Group, 2020, webpage).
From an economic sustainability point of view, the projected demand for plastics is excellent news. I.e., market analysts forecast the CAGR of the Building & Construction Plastics Market between 2018 and 2025 at 7.6% (Kumari, 2018).
From an environmental sustainability angle, the growth in demand for plastics spells trouble; many countries’ efforts to recycle and prevent single-use plastics cannot make up for the increased consumption and disposal of plastics in developing economies (International Energy Agency, 2018). In the meantime, the world faces COVID-19 pandemic.
The Center for International Law or CIEL laid bare the efforts of the oil and gas industry in the US to have the government roll back fuel efficiency standards and suspend all enforcement of environmental laws affecting the industry. The plastic sector went even further, and bluntly requested a government statement in favor of plastic bags and single-use plastics (CIEL, 2020).
On April 8, 2020, the European Plastic Converters or EuPC sent an open letter to the President of the European Commission stating that “many independent studies repeatedly show that plastics are (sic) the material of choice for ensuring hygiene, safety as well as preservation from contamination” (Dangis and Zelcher, 2020, p.2).
The EuPC requests “the postponement of the deadline for the implementation of the SUP Directive for at least an additional year at (sic) national level and to lift all bans on some of the single-use plastics items” (Dangis and Zelcher, 2020, p.2). Both the US and Europe’s actions make one wonder whether the industries’ sustainability efforts stem from a sincere motivation or sophisticated greenwashing practices.
Plastic and Health
Despite fifty years of scientific research and acknowledging that plastic poses health risks, a consensus is still missing within the scientific community. Apart from pointing out that some populations (pregnant women and children) are at higher risk, a literature review of one hundred and twenty peer-reviewed articles concludes that more research is needed while hinting at the same time that lobbying plays a role in not reaching a consensus (Halden, 2010).
Prata (2018), however, points to the increased presence of airborne plastic microparticles in the atmosphere from a wide variety of sources such as textiles, city dust, erosion of synthetic rubber tires, industrial emissions, and even tumble dryer exhaust, and links them to respiration and intestinal diseases while reiterating Halden’s (2010) request for more research.
Heidbreder et al. (2019) posit that the potential threat to human health comes from eating food that has been in contact with plastic or food that contains microplastics since plastic particles can carry persistent pollutants. One can conclude that living organisms are surrounded by plastic and invaded by it and that the impact on the health of living organisms is not yet fully understood.
Black Carbon and Particulate Matter
Black carbon or the carbonaceous (rich in carbon) aerosol is possibly the second only to CO2 as a driver of global warming and conceivably responsible for more than thirty percent of recent warming in the Artic (Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 2010).
Klimont et al. (2017) describe black carbon or BC as a species of PM or particulate matter, solid and liquid particles so small they remain airborne where they play a role in the climate system. Compared to CO2, BC remains in the air for a short period, yet it contributes more to warming. What creates BC is the poor combustion of fossil fuels, biomass fuels, waste, coal, and wood. This combustion happens in industrial and agricultural processes, transportation, households, and natural vegetation fires (Gustafsson and Ramanathan, 2016).
There is a difference between primary particles, which are composites with a diameter smaller than 2.5 µm (PM2.5 or fine particles) or smaller than 0.1 µm (PM0.1 or ultrafine particles), and secondary or coarse particles with a diameter greater than 2.5 µm. Coarse particles have two distinctions; PM10 with a diameter smaller than 10 µm and Total Suspended Particle Matter or TSP up to 100 µm.
Primary PM finds its way into the atmosphere, while secondary PM forms in the atmosphere (Amaral et al., 2015). The estimated annual number of premature deaths from exposure to ambient or outdoors PM2.5 in which BC –that penetrates deep in the lungs — is substantially present is three and a half million (Scrovonick, 2015). The link between the plastics industry and the source of its products (crude oil and natural gas) is visible.
Cleaner Plastic Production?
The International Energy Agency or IEA developed a Clean Technology Scenario or CTS for the petrochemical industry. Central to this transition to a cleaner industry is waste management improvement through a maximized collection for increased production of recycled plastic, and “carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), catalytic processes, and a shift from coal to natural gas” (International Energy Agency, 2018, p.6). Please note that CTS does not exclude fossil fuel as raw material as the proposed shift from coal to natural gas simply means a change from one non-renewable resource to another.
Not all plastic comes from non-renewable resources. Renewable plastics from edible and non-edible biomass are both biodegradable and biobased and impact the environment the least. Bioplastics production amounted to less than one percent of global plastic production in 2018 (Chen and Yan, 2020). Bioplastics’ global production amounted to 2.11 million tonnes in 2019, or 0.6% of all plastic output (European Bioplastics, 2020). It is essential to realize that biodegradable plastic is an end-of-life solution and that, if not correctly disposed of, it can cause the same pollution as traditional plastic (ECOS, 2020).
While in 2018, the demand for oil and gas reached its highest levels ever (IOGP, 2018), the massive production and consumption of plastics harm the planet and the health of humans and wildlife (Heidbreder et al., 2019). This statement starkly contrasts with PlasticsEurope’s claim that “plastics contribute to Circularity, Health and Safety, and Mitigating Climate Change” (PlasticsEurope, 2019, webpage).
Overcoming such a paradox requires the active involvement of a wide range of stakeholders. From consumer to producers, from policy-makers to scientists, from industry and business leaders to citizens, from a global to a local level (Löhr et al., 2017). It has become more than the science-policy issue, Thompson et al. (2019) suggested. Adding to the paradox, Chen and Yan (2020) consider the current plastic industry as far removed from sustainable development.
They reinforce the conclusion drawn by the Center for International Environmental Law or CIEL that the plastic economy is “fundamentally inconsistent with the Paris Agreement” (Hamilton et al., 2019, p.87). The European plastics industry disagrees firmly; it considers itself as the provider of comfort, safety, hygiene, and well-being and contributes to circularity, health, and security, even as a mitigator of climate change (PlasticsEurope, 2019).
While plastic undoubtedly made life more convenient, the industry’s power and the overtaking of the sector by oil and gas signal an extended dependence on fossil fuels. One cannot but conclude that, in essence, the plastic industry will not be truly sustainable until the material can be produced from renewable resources and the material can be safely used and biodegraded.
Plastic and Politics
In a memo to President George W. Bush, Frank Luntz (2003) advises the President to talk about climate change instead of global warming because the former sounds controllable and less emotional and the latter catastrophic. Luntz further stipulates that criticism of America as “causing a majority of the world’s pollution and being the biggest contributor to the greenhouse effect” is “garbage (Luntz, 2003, p.140)” and urges the President to “set the record straight” (ibid., p.140).
The memo went as far as to spell out the exact words to use and included the advice to ignore science, making the memo a guidebook for framing. Support for environmental protection in the US used to be non-partisan until the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration started to view environmental protection as a burden on the economy and started to roll back regulations (Dunlap and McCright, 2008).
The partisan divide widened after that, and social media users in red states tend to believe the global-warming-as-a-hoax framing supported by partisan media elites. Luntz’s advice not to refer to global warming fell into deaf Republican ears since the term’s dramatic connotation makes it easier to deny on a freezing day (Jang and Hart, 2015).
In 2019, a majority (67%) of US adults thought the government did too little to reduce the impact of climate change. Of that majority, ninety percent were Democrats or leaning toward democratic ideology, compared to thirty-nine percent Republicans or leaning toward republican ideology.
What is notable is that among the Republicans thinking government does too little, only twenty-four percent are conservative Republicans while they represent a two-thirds majority of the Party. Half of the conservative Republicans promote fossil fuel expansion as energy sources (Pew Research Center, 2019).
Figure 2: US Crude Oil Production
Under the climate change skeptical US administration, the country increased domestic oil production and was, in November 2019, the largest oil producer in the world (US Energy Information Administration, 2020). Since 1990, the US Oil & Gas Sector spent on average eighty-one percent of its contribution to dollars on Republicans, and in 2019 alone, the sector paid $125.4 million to lobbyists.
The top five spenders are, in descending order, Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil, Chevron Corp, Occidental Petroleum, and Royal Dutch Shell (The Center for Responsive Politics, 2020). The long-term relationship between the Oil & Gas Sector (on which the plastics industry depends) and the Republicans makes it highly unlikely they will promote a radical shift to renewable energies any time soon.
It will be interesting to monitor if and how the new Biden administration will tackle the wicked problems, especially in light of the continued reign of Neoliberalism.
Why Neoliberalism Won’t Halt Plastic Production
According to Friedman (1970), making more financial profit is the only social responsibility of a company. Governments should limit their actions to providing the best conditions for free-market capitalism since it is not their job to care for its people but to drive market competition (Wilson, 2018).
Free-market capitalism would lead to faster growth and more riches that would then “trickle-down” to benefit all. The individual beneficiary of the trickle-down effect through labor then has the freedom to care for her or himself and the family, as private organizations will provide the services otherwise rendered by the state. This neoliberal maxim is still very much alive today, benefiting far and foremost, the top 1% rich (Fine and Saad-Filho, 2016; Stiglitz, 2019).
Already over a decade ago, Harvey (2007) posited that if Neoliberalism achieved anything, it is the return to upper-class ruled societies. However, such a neoliberalist pursuit of economic profit directly links to climate change, rising inequality, and poverty (Shrubsole, 2015).
Still, hegemonic Neoliberalism is present in “environmental governance,” whereby Sustainability is a tradeable commodity (Fletcher, 2013). Lemon and Agrawal (2006) define environmental governance as the combined effort of governments and non-governmental actors, including communities and businesses, to shape ecological actions and outcomes.
While the neoliberalist cries out for healthier more, the global authority in marketing calls for “demarketing.” Demarketing is conserving or reducing demand (Kotler, 2011) and, thus, the opposite of the free-market capitalist’s quest for fast and continuous growth.
Dean (2008) calls the neoliberal promise that everybody will win through free trade a fantasy since a free market means competition, and in every match, there are winners and losers. Neoliberalism fails to deliver on the promise of a better world for all (Paterson and P-Laberge, 2018), while the global partnership so much desired by the UN lags in meeting its own goals as well.
In The Sustainable Development Report 2019, UN Secretary-General Mr. António Guterres urges a “much deeper, faster, and more ambitious response is needed to unleash the social and economic transformation needed to achieve our 2030 goals” (United Nations, 2019, p.2). Sneddon et al. (2006) warned that sovereign nations become less sturdy and the global order more turbulent over a decade ago. In such a post-Brundtland world, sustainable solutions become more urgent and more difficult to provide at the same time.
The global partnership of the UN consists of many stakeholders: international organizations, local authorities, NGOs, the scientific community, civil society, and industries and businesses (United Nations, 2019). The increased urgency and difficulty should put extra pressure on the plastics industry and all its value chain players. Moving away from Neoliberalism seems to be a prerequisite for that change to happen.
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Thanks to Alessandro Butler
This article was originally published on the author's blog. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.