This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
The fossil fuel industry is in trouble and has a sneaky idea for saving itself: It wants to produce lots more plastic. Many people don’t realize it, but almost all plastic is made from fossil fuels. So the same oil and gas companies whose products have overheated the planet are also behind the mountains of plastic that litter our communities, beaches, and oceans.
Almost 40 percent of the world’s ocean surface is now covered by swirling gyres of plastic that never fully decompose and kill countless numbers of fish and other marine animals. Much of this is single-use plastic—bottles, bags, and other items designed to be used once and thrown away.
Now, as pressure grows to phase out fossil fuels in the name of climate survival, industry giants including ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron Phillips envision increased plastic production as an economic lifeline. The petrochemical industry has announced investments of more than $200 billion since 2010 to expand production capacity in the United States. To greenwash this apparent effort to lock in increased plastics use for decades to come, the industry is doubling down on a public relations claim it first crafted 40 years ago: Plastic recycling will stop plastic pollution. That is a lie almost as brazen as these same companies’ lie that their products don’t cause global warming. In fact, only 9 percent of all mass-produced plastic ever created has actually been recycled.
Greenpeace, where I work, is collaborating with scientists, public officials, and activists around the world to defeat this assault on public and planetary health, and we believe the battle is shifting in our favor. Ten years ago, the oil industry appeared unstoppable. The oil industry’s business model is built on the myth of perpetually increasing demand. Fracking and other new technologies were opening new vistas of production. Capital expenditures for exploration, drilling, pipelines, and other infrastructure soared on the assumption that “if you build it, they will come.”
The landscape has changed dramatically since then. Warnings from scientists of the reality and costs of climate change are clear. Climate emergencies are unfolding in real time as Australia erupts into flames, the Caribbean suffers one record-breaking hurricane after another, and drought crushes farmers across Africa’s Sahel. Youth-led climate strikes have raised the political stakes, and more and more governments are calling for versions of a Green New Deal that will leave fossil fuels in the ground. Even the financial class is souring on fossil fuels, as some of the world’s largest investment companies have said they will stop financing climate destabilizing projects like Arctic oil drilling. We are finally able to see, on the horizon, a world beyond fossil fuels.
Yet even as we press for a rapid, equitable transition to climate-friendly energy sources, we must recognize that fossil fuel production will continue unless the vast majority of single-use plastics also are phased out. There are limited cases where single-use plastics may make sense—for example, in the masks and other protective gear health workers must wear to treat coronavirus patients. But corporate profit maximization, not human need, is the reason production of single-use plastics has soared in recent decades. For example, Unilever pioneered the “sachet economy,” which markets products in single-serve plastic packages to appeal to low-income consumers unable to afford larger quantities of the deodorant or shampoo on offer. Sachets overwhelm municipal waste infrastructure systems and cannot be recycled, imposing an intrusive double standard that exploits inequity. As with most environmental scourges, the resulting pollution hits people of color and poor and working-class communities hardest.
And the plastics industry is determined to keep expanding for decades. The industry’s $200 billion of planned new investment, spread across over 340 projects, aims to triple global production by 2050 (link here). ExxonMobil alone pledges to invest more than $20 billion over 10 years in what it calls “Growing the Gulf,” an initiative to enlarge production at “more than a dozen major chemical, refining, lubricant and liquified natural gas projects” along the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
Predictably omitted from ExxonMobil’s dubious PR claims, which include a promise to create “tens of thousands of jobs,” is the fact that the industry’s expansion is made possible partly by massive government subsidies—in other words, by taxpayers. The new petrochemical plant ExxonMobil is building in Texas with a subsidiary of the state-owned Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco received an estimated $460 million in subsidies. Exxon received around $62 million in 2017 alone for its Louisiana refineries and plastics production. Shell received $1.6 billion in state subsidies for its Pennsylvania ethane cracker.
Joining the petrochemical industry in its “plastics forever” dream are consumer goods companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Unilever that have been packaging an increasing share of their products in single-use plastic. The companies’ bottles and containers often become part of the 8 million metric tons of plastic that enter the oceans every year. Some of those discarded consumer items end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gigantic swirl of debris halfway between Hawaii and California that is roughly the size of the state of Alaska. Plastic has also been found in more than 60 percent of all seabirds and in 100 percent of sea turtles.
Despite these horror stories, industry’s answer is not to limit the production of single-use plastic; it wants to increase production while posing as good corporate citizens by claiming that all those additional shopping bags, shampoo bottles, and vegetable cartons can be recycled. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste sounds like the name of an environmentally righteous organization, but the group is in fact sponsored by ExxonMobil, Chevron Phillips, Shell, Dow, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and dozens of other giant corporations. In their view, the culprit is not plastic but “plastic waste,” which Procter & Gamble’s CEO David Taylor piously affirms “does not belong in our oceans or anywhere in the environment.” The solution, they say, is better waste management and more recycling. But decades of experience and scientific studies have demonstrated that plastics recycling simply doesn’t work, at least not at the scale commensurate with ever-increasing plastic production and marketing. A peer-reviewed survey of the nation’s 367 recycling facilities found that only PET #1 and HDPE #2 plastic bottles and jugs may legitimately be labeled as recyclable.
Instead of these false solutions, what’s truly needed is clear. To tackle the plastics crisis, we need to stop producing so much plastic in the first place. To that end, we should pressure consumer goods companies to end their reliance on single-use plastic and instead invest in “reuse and refill” consumption models. Governments should ban unnecessary applications of single-use plastics, such as plastic shopping bags, and stop subsidizing fossil fuels as well. Individuals can refuse to buy unnecessary plastics, seek out alternatives, and embrace a “reduce and reuse” lifestyle.
Ultimately, the plastics crisis is rooted in the short-term convenience-over-everything throwaway culture that corporations encourage. We need to reject their seductive narratives that buying disposable stuff supposedly brings personal fulfillment. Under today’s paradigm, we are extracting fossil fuels at enormous economic and social cost to manufacture products that people use for minutes but will pollute for generations. Does that really make sense for anything but these corporations’ profit margins?
The plastics crisis and the climate crisis are two fronts in the same battle. We cannot end the era of single-use plastics without stopping the fossil fuel industry, and we cannot stop the fossil fuel industry without ending single-use plastics. Join us. Together, we can build a cleaner, healthier future for everyone.