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One of the reasons the 1918 pandemic spread so rapidly, killing 50 million people worldwide, was due to a common practice of the times: drinking free water from a communal cup known as a “tin dipper.”
Ten years before the outbreak, Boston attorney Lawrence Luellen had created a different type of cup—the “Health Kup”—made from paper. For just a penny per cup, people could get their own individual cup and then throw it away, preventing the spread of disease. Market adoption had been slow over its first 10 years of production, but the pandemic created the perfect conditions for the Health Kup to take off. It was quickly renamed the “Dixie Cup” and is still hailed as a “life-saving technology” today, commonly used in school classrooms and doctors’ offices.
With the world’s first plastic, celluloid, having been invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869 and repeatedly refined since then, disposable plastics quickly became a key part of this throw-away culture. Items such as plastic straws, cups, and lids were introduced to a growing consumer base whose new normal was becoming one of single-use and throw-away both to keep their families safe from disease and to support a new promise of convenience.
An intentional, profitable plastic path
Since its initial introduction, the production of plastics has grown exponentially. Today more than 350 million metric tons of new plastic are produced every single year. And stakeholders in the plastic industry have steep growth plans—from the oil, gas, and petrochemical companies that fuel the manufacturing of plastic, to the consumer packaged-goods companies that use plastic for packaging their products. A new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts predicts that, with those growth plans, production will increase to 400 million metric tons of new plastic by the year 2040.
These by-products are used by the petrochemical industry to create highly profitable plastic polymer-based items that we now rely on to make our lives more convenient, to ensure products have greater “shelf lives” in supermarkets, and to keep healthcare workers safe from the spread of disease in clinics, to name only a few applications.
But despite its many uses, there is significant evidence that the growth of the plastics industry is not driven by end-customer demand, but rather by the oil and gas industry’s need to offload supply. As renewable energy options become increasingly competitive with fossil fuels, the coronavirus depresses fuel demand, and the price of oil drops due to a price war and oversupply, oil and gas companies are saddled with a surplus of ethylene that they need to convert to a sellable product. Ethylene is the foundational petrochemical for plastic bags and bottles.
Earlier this year, Mother Jones reported that ExxonMobil executives had assured shareholders that the company could offset falling fuel demands from electric cars with growth in petrochemicals. And in 2018, the International Energy Agency found that petrochemicals were slated to be the largest driver of global oil consumption, ahead of cars, planes, and trucks. It is clear, the oil and gas industries are increasingly relying on plastics to make their profits.
Never let a good crisis go to waste
Today it is estimated that between 8 and 12 million tons of new plastic enter the ocean every single year. The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates this figure will increase to 29 million metric tons per year by the year 2040 if we continue to operate under a business-as-usual scenario—meaning all current policies to prevent plastic pollution are enforced, but we do not expand these policies or take additional preventative action.
And this was before the pandemic. We now know that, in 2020 alone, plastic polymers will be used to produce 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month to keep frontline health care workers safe. None of these items are recyclable.
Yet beyond these essential items, the modern plastics industry has been taking advantage of the pandemic to further increase its profits, strategically planting unfounded fears and exploiting concerns over surface transmission to encourage greater consumption of all single-use plastic items. We’ve seen pressure by the industry to delay, hinder, or even roll back single-use plastic bans in favor of disposables, especially as restaurants prepare to re-open for business and offer meals to go.
Therefore, it is paramount that we reject the business-as-usual scenario and expand policies that can push back against industry efforts.
Sabotaging its own recycling fairytale
In the 1980s and 1990s the plastics industry was well aware of the mounting waste problem caused by its products. In response to public outcry, the industry spent millions of dollars launching campaigns through the Ad Council and organizations such as “Keep America Beautiful” that told Americans—once we can put our trash in the recycling bin, the waste problem will disappear.
This low rate is due in large part to industry itself. During the same time period that they were pushing recycling campaigns, industry continued to produce increasingly more complex and harder-to-sort plastics that most collection centers cannot accept, simply because there are no buyers for the recycled materials. Simultaneously, the plastics industry began a multi-decade lobbying effort to prevent bans on single-use plastics such as bags and bottles, which it knew were poised for significant growth and profit.
Had the industry instead worked to stabilize the waste collection and recycling infrastructure needed to support a true circular economy for plastic packaging, and to develop end-of-life solutions for the material already produced, it would have set a higher value for recycled plastic and increased recycling rates.
Unfortunately, the outlook for recycling in the US continues to be troubling. Pre-Covid-19, the US had about 9,000 recycling facilities, most of which were run by municipalities and tied to local budgets. As states and cities bear the brunt of Covid-19-related health and unemployment costs, some municipalities are suspending their recycling services. In 2019, California’s recycling facilities were already struggling and many began to shutter before Covid-19. Since the onset of the pandemic, several more have closed their doors, a trend now being seen in cities across the US including Miami, Peoria, Omaha, and New Orleans.
This further demonstrates that recycling on its own is not a viable solution for curbing plastic pollution. It is essential to address the plastic supply chain and decrease the production of virgin plastic, thereby stopping pollution at its source.
Stuck in the past
Rather than innovating in response to these recycling facility closures, the plastics industry, which has invested more than $200 billion in 333 new and expanded plastic and chemical projects in the US over the past decade, has asked the US Congress for a $1 billion bailout to maintain their current approach to the crisis, which relies on increased production of virgin plastic polymers that have no end-of-life disposition. Further exacerbating the situation, global oil prices have plummeted, thereby maintaining the competitive cost advantage of virgin over recycled plastic polymers and making it more difficult for companies that have made a commitment to using recycled plastic to secure a sufficient supply.
All of this is occurring during a time when the estimate for global waste, in a non-Covid-19 world, was set to increase 30 percent over 2019 levels.
No matter what new figures are published about the future of our ocean and our communities, the plastics industry continues to hold onto the past—with a death grip on all of us. Their strategy is one of maintaining the status quo in favor of short-sighted profitability.
Recently, The New York Times reported that the industry’s growth plan is to “flood Africa with plastics.” The majority of the nations on the African continent have insufficient waste management infrastructure systems and are already known to be battling significant plastic pollution and leakage of plastic into the ocean from land-based sources. To combat this issue, 34 of the 54 states on the continent have taken some form of action to ban single-use plastics. Two of the most notable examples include Kenya, which instituted one of the world’s strictest bans on single-use plastic bags in 2017, and Rwanda, which banned non-biodegradable plastic bags in 2008 and became the first country in Africa to issue a complete ban on all single-use plastic in October of 2019.
Despite these successes, implementation remains a shared challenge across the continent, with many nuances and local exemptions. To further flood African countries with plastics that have no end-of-life use and are increasingly more difficult and costly to collect, sort, and process is egregious.
The plastics industry’s actions have become a crime against humanity.
Envisioning a future free from plastic waste
All is not lost—yet. The pandemic should serve as a catalyst for further action, rather than an excuse for industry to reverse our progress. We need to strengthen existing measures, set higher goals, and diversify our efforts—because if we continue at this rate, the annual inflow of plastic to the ocean could nearly triple by 2040.
According to the Pew Charitable Trust’s new analysis, Breaking the Plastic Wave, we can cut annual flows of plastic into the ocean by about 80 percent in the next 20 years by applying existing solutions and technologies:
Debunk the myth
We don’t need more virgin plastic. Plastic growth is not coupled with economic growth. Pew’s analysis found that “we could fulfill the growing global demand for ‘plastic utility’ in 2040 with roughly the same amount of plastic in the system as today […] If such actions are taken, governments around the world could collectively save $70 billion while also reducing plastic pollution.”
Redirect resources to invest in these solutions, backed by policy changes from governments.
This means putting pressure on corporations and government officials to increase their actions to create end-of-life solutions and invest in sufficient waste management and recycling infrastructure.
Understand the key solutions
High-income countries need to stop exporting their plastic waste. Middle-income countries need to ban plastic waste imports with tough fines for illegal dumping. Low-income countries could restrict plastic waste imports as a protective measure, but more importantly industry itself must shift to only producing materials with a higher inherent value and designing for recyclability to support recycling markets globally.
Companies need to demand polymers be made from recycled plastic and more sustainable alternatives, and redesign their packaging and delivery to be truly circular.
We all need to reduce our use of single-use and non-essential plastics and continue to tell companies and governments how they can better align with our values to realize a world without waste.