Plastic production is booming. The culprits hiding behind it? Fossil fuels.

Elsa Monteith

As the landscape of the plastics industry develops to our detriment, we must seize the opportunity to hold this major polluter accountable.

Image © Keesnan

Elsa Monteith

Image © Keesnan

Why Big Oil is a big problem for our ocean

The ease, convenience, and versatility of plastic has a firm grip on our society: a low-cost material and go-to resource that meets the demands of our economy, but overlooks the needs of our environment. A staggering 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels, with Big Oil (aka the six largest oil companies in the world) at the epicenter of manufacturing. They tend to keep this quiet, but the real-life consequences are severe: at least 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Another way of looking at that? Every minute, we dump an entire garbage truck’s worth of plastic into the sea.

Why are we seeing a rise in plastic production, consumption, and pollution? And what can we do to stop the industry in its tracks? Let’s find out.

Plastic waste and oil collecting in ocean water · Kmiragaya Photography

Fueling a future in plastic

As the industry reckons with a shift away from oil in response to demands for cleaner energy, along with record financial losses exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, companies are reportedly investing over $180 billion to ramp up virgin plastic production, at the same time as stalling the recycled plastic market. Experts expect a 40% rise in plastic manufacturing over the next decade. And the plastics industry emits around 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses every year, or 4% of global emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change.

The amount of plastic produced each year is already roughly equivalent to the entire weight of humanity, a figure that reaches north of 300 million tons annually, more in the last decade than in the entire twentieth century. So how does all this plastic seep into and interact with our seas?

Naja Bertolt Jensen / Ocean Image Bank

How plastic begins and ends with our ocean

Plastic is created, consumed, and more often than not discarded in the blink of an eye. But it takes up to 450 long years to decompose in the ocean. On top of that, the petrochemical origins of plastic, found in fossil fuels, take millions of years to generate, emphasizing a devastating disparity between dwindling natural resources and increasing human appetite.

Once plastic reaches the ocean, it has a big impact on marine life. Scientists have found that plastic pollution causes direct damage to as many as 700 species, including sea turtles, seals and sea lions, seabirds, fish, whales, dolphins, and marine bacteria that produces 10% of the oxygen we breathe. Even creatures at the very bottom of the ocean aren’t safe, as microplastics have been detected on the deep-sea floor.

Whilst food giants and other major companies are pledging to reduce their use of single-use plastics, large-scale production is showing no signs of slowing down, to the detriment of some more than others.

Sea turtles are among the 700 marine species directly impacted by plastic pollution · William Bradberry

An injustice for both people and planet

In the United States, it is primarily African-American, Latino, and low-income communities who live in close proximity to refineries and plastics plants that release toxic chemicals, contributing to unhealthy living conditions and precarious welfare. Similarly, indigenous populations who rely on their natural environment are met with an industry desperate for land to build facilities at any cost, historically leading to a culture of deforestation and land-grabbing. Then, there’s the perilous prediction that without action, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, presenting a direct threat to coastal livelihoods. This is all a stark reminder that plastic pollution is an issue that reaches beyond the environment, and into the personal.

The plastics crisis affects every one of us, to varying degrees, through destruction of natural habitats, mounting health hazards, and threats to economic development. Yet individuals and activist groups give us hope and show us how to take action on plastics, and we’re seeing a growing swath of community-led efforts to face off against an industry more interested in increasing their profits, instead of protecting our planet.

In Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” — so called because of the 150 nearby refineries and plastics plants that release toxic chemicals — RISE St. James in a grassroots organization fighting against the construction of more industrial facilities. · Goldman Environmental Prize

Communities working to end the plastic tide

Across the globe, grassroots organizations are working toward a future free of fossil-fueled plastic production and pollution. Surfrider Foundation are making plastic political, fighting for ocean protection and demanding change through a powerful activist network and catalog of campaigns, whilst Exxpedition runs all-women sailing research voyages to explore the true extent of plastic waste in our ocean, holding the industry to account with scientific studies and published papers.

Behind the campaigns to demand that the plastics industry and powerful institutions create systemic change, we see a driving force led by people and their communities. Together, we’re fighting for a shift both in practice and in perspective — with the onus of the plastics crisis lying squarely at the door of Big Oil.

Siwabud Veerapaisarn

How you can help


Sign our petitions to help stop plastics and hold the industry to account.


Start removing plastic pollution today on Only One with a monthly membership. Through our partner CleanHub’s project, Only One members fund the removal of 50,000 kilograms of plastic in five different locations across India and Indonesia, equivalent to five million plastic bottles!


Investigate plastic production and/or pollution in your area and get involved in efforts to resist and regulate it.


Share this article with your friends and family to be part of educating and empowering the next generation of changemakers.


Elsa Monteith

Writer, Driftime

Writing from the sunny shores of Brighton in the UK, Elsa Monteith lends her hand to words with purpose and impact, working with a selection of like-minded organizations with a shared interest in planet, people, and progress.

10 free trees if you sign up today

Save the planet every month with our membership

Grow your own forests and reefs

Remove plastic and carbon pollution

See your impact in a personal dashboard

Invite friends to plant with you

100% of funds go to projects