$180bn Invested In Plastic Production Risks Irreversibly Damaging The Environment

The world uses a massive amount of plastic, which threatens the integrity of the world’s oceans and food chains. The problem is so widespread that a massive pile of plastic garbage million square miles wide (or roughly the size of Mexico) exists in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Furthermore, plastic fibers have recently been found within the stomachs of animals that live in the ocean’s deepest depths. Given the size of the problem, many conservation groups are urging us to cut back on our use of plastics.

Yet fossil fuel companies and other companies have invested approximately 180 billion dollars into the creation of new plastic plants that will go up over the next ten years. The plastic facilities will be constructed by corporations such as Shell Chemical and Exxon Mobile. The move worries environmental scientists who warn of an impending ecological disaster.

300 Million Tons of Plastic a Year

The president of the US Center for International Environmental Law, Carroll Muffett, argues the investment comes at a time when society needs to be cutting back on its use of plastic, not investing in more plastic plants which will run for decades to come. Muffett argues that the relationship between oil and gas companies is to blame for much of the problem because most of the base chemicals used in the creation of plastic are fossil fuels.

Underscoring the link between fossil fuel companies and plastic production is the fact that much of the plastic production which happens in the US is driven by a shale gas boom, which means that the fossil fuels needed to create plastics are very cheap. Shale gas is actually so cheap that it has enabled the planning of 318 new plastic plants since 2010. Currently, half of these projects have been completed, according to the American Chemistry Council, while the other half is currently still in planning stages.

Plastic use has exploded since the 1950’s when hardly any was used. Today the globe produces more than 300 million tons of plastic a year, which is more than the net weight of humanity. According to an investigation done by The Guardian, more than a million plastic bottles are purchased every minute around the world. Most of these bottles will end up in a landfill, but many of them will end up in the sea. The trend doesn’t seem like it will be stopping anytime soon.

The great Pacific garbage patch congregates in the middle of the Pacific ocean because of currents which push the trash to that region. Photo: Public Domain

The Center for International Environmental Law’s Steven Feit says that the correlation between the shale gas boom in the US and the production of plastics is strong, and that plastic production is only likely to increase unless substantial pressure is put on plastic companies. This is attributed to a growing demand for plastic, both in the US and abroad. While many of the new plastic plants are being created in the US, much of the product created in this plant will be sent to China and Europe. As long as demand for plastic products increases so will supply.

In preparation for the production of more plastics, companies like Ineos, a petrochemical giant, have been using massive “dragon ships” to ship natural gas supplies to the UK and the rest of Europe over the past year. The company is gearing up to start shipping natural gas liquids to China starting in 2019.

Environmental activists, scientists, and policymakers continue to express their concern, urging society to move away from the use of convenient but damaging disposable plastic products.

The Permanent Pollution of the Earth

The University of California at Santa Barbara’s Roland Geyer lead a study which was published early in 2017. The study reported that the globe has created almost 8.3 billion tons of plastic since the 1950’s. Given that plastic does not degrade for hundreds of years, Geyer and his team warned that society risks the de facto permanent pollution of planet Earth.

Despite warnings from activist, corporations like Shell and Exxon Mobile continue to pursue the creation of new plastic production plants. Groups like the American Chemistry Council remain unconcerned about the environmental damage, arguing that studies have found that using plastic actually reduces damage to the environment.

Steve Russell, the vice president of the ACC, says that new plastics let us “do more with less” and enable us to drive less heavy cars, create more fuel-efficient homes, release less carbon, etc. The ACC also argues that the new plastic plants will create hundreds to thousands of jobs and enable the widespread manufacturing of parts for a variety of different purposes, such as vehicle components, computer parts, medical instruments, and building parts.

Developing Less Pollutive Plastics

It isn’t just the US that is investing in the creation of new plastics, the French plastic parts company Plastic Omnium SA just recently announced that it would be expanding its current production capacity over the next four years through the investment of 2.5 billion euros ($2.9 billion dollars). Plastic Omnium SA mainly builds plastic parts for cars, and in a somewhat ironic twist, some of its current projects involve the creation of energy storage solutions for electric and hybrid vehicles.

This points to the fact that it is possible for plastics to be massive polluters in some ways and less pollutive in others. The challenge is in finding a balance, a way to maximize the benefits of plastics and reduce the drawbacks. Environmental researchers and activists acknowledge there are some benefits to plastic use but remain concerned about the disposable plastic industry, as it continues to be responsible for billions of tons of pollution a year.

In order to try and maximize the benefits of plastics, research into technology like biodegradable plastics is being carried out. A team of scientists from the NYP School of Chemical and Life Sciences in Singapore has recently found a way to turn coffee waste into a form of biodegradable plastic that could be used in plastic bags and other products. A French engineer is also working on a project to reduce plastic waste, through the creation of a biodegradable water bottle that uses sugarcane as a base. It remains to be seen how effective these products will be at reducing plastic waste, but efforts to reduce plastic waste are always welcome.

It may be up to society as a whole to find a solution, likely involving both reducing our dependence on plastic and inventing less pollutive plastic technologies.