Plastic bag floating in the ocean with seaweed

Booming single-use plastics market blamed on unscrupulous fossil fuel firms

Image credit: Dreamstime

The quantity of single-use plastics produced annually is expected to grow by 30 per cent over the next five years, risking further damage to the marine environment as well as a rise in carbon emissions.

According to the Australia-based Minderoo Foundation, more than 130 million tonnes of single- use plastic was thrown away in 2019, almost all of which was burned, buried in landfill, or discarded directly into the environment.

In its first Plastic Waste Makers Index report, it is estimated that between five to 13 million tonnes of single-use plastic ends up in the ocean each year.

Once there, they eventually break down into tiny particles that impact wildlife health – and the ocean’s ability to store carbon. They also contain chemical additives such as plasticisers that have been found in humans and are linked to a range of reproductive health problems.

If growth in single-use plastic production continues at current rates, they could account for five to 10 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The report also calculated that just 20 companies are responsible for producing around half of the world’s single-use plastic waste with ExxonMobil named as the greatest single-use plastic waste polluter.

Australia is also the biggest user of the material, chucking away 59kg per person per year, followed by 53kg per person in the US and 44kg per person in the UK.

But despite the environmental damage that the plastics industry causes, it has been allowed to operate “with minimal regulation and transparency for decades”, say the report's authors.

Government policies, where they exist, tend to focus on the vast number of companies that sell finished plastic products while relatively little attention is paid to the smaller number of businesses at the base of the supply chain that make fossil-fuel based polymers, which are the building blocks of all plastics.

The report finds that these companies are the source of the single-use plastic crisis, and their production of new 'virgin' polymers from oil, gas and coal feedstocks perpetuates the wasteful cycle of the plastics economy.

In an emailed comment to Reuters, ExxonMobil said it “shares society’s concern about plastic waste and agrees it must be addressed” through a collaborative effort between business, governments, green groups and consumers.

In a foreword to the report, former US vice president Al Gore said: “We are treating the ocean like a liquid landfill. Scientists, environmentalists, and watchdogs sounded the alarm on the climate crisis for decades, providing ever-more detailed data on its causes and eventual impacts.

“Fossil fuel polluters tried to obscure the catastrophic damage and existential risk they were causing and tried to evade responsibility for their contribution to the problem – but eventually the data caught up with them.

“Two of the biggest markets for fossil fuel companies – electricity generation and transportation – are undergoing rapid decarbonisation, and it is no coincidence that fossil fuel companies are now scrambling to massively expand their third market – petrochemicals –three-quarters of which is the production of plastic.”

Yesterday, a Greenpeace report found that UK plastic has been found dumped and burned across southern Turkey rather than recycled as expected.

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