People are more aware than ever that plastic is not good for the environment. It trashes the ocean, harms wildlife and even ends up in our food and hurts human health. But it is more than just litter.
The plastic industry is the second largest and fastest-growing source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions, and 99% of what goes into plastic is derived from fossil fuels. Plastics are effectively a byproduct of fossil fuel extraction. Almost all plastic, the CIEL researchers found, — including resins, fibers and additives — is derived from fossil fuels. The materials used to make plastic, like ethylene and propylene, come from oil, gas and coal. It's a byproduct of oil, coal and gas and a key contributor to CO2 emissions.
As Carroll Muffett, lead author of the CIEL report, points out, producing plastic is how the fossil fuel industry is able to "take what would otherwise be a waste stream and turn it into a profit stream."
If the expansion of petrochemical and plastics production continues as currently planned, the report outlines that by 2050 plastic will be responsible for 10 to 13% of the total "carbon budget" — which is the amount of CO2 we can emit globally and still remain below a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise. In 2019 alone, researchers estimate that the production and incineration of plastic will contribute more than 850 million tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Incineration is particularly harmful, and is the number one driver of emissions from plastic waste management. Over the next 10 years, the report projected that emissions from the plastics lifecycle could reach 1.34 gigatons per year — equivalent to the emissions from more than 295 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants operating at full capacity.
Plastic production is on the rise worldwide. Part of the reason for this is that many of the companies that manufacture plastic resins are the same companies that manufacture oil and gas: Mobil, Shell, Chevron, and Total, for example. The fact the oil industry is propping up plastics at a time when the world is slowly phasing out fossil fuel-powered energy is no coincidence, Muffett points out.
"As they see the world moving away from an energy economy based on oil and gas, these companies are increasingly relying on a shift into plastics and other petrochemicals for their long-term business strength," he told DW.
The production and proliferation of plastic is deeply industrialized. It's cheap, sturdy and lightweight, and has transformed the way we consume. That's why eliminating plastic requires some big changes.
Rick Stafford, professor of marine biology from the University of Bournemouth, says battling climate change and the plastic crisis requires a re-thinking of the capitalist mindset of overconsumption.
"We're using too much, whether that's fossil fuels or whether that's just stuff which is made out of plastic. And that's a change more people will have to grasp," he explained.
But as Muffett points out, plastic is also a robust business model for big corporations. This doesn't mean there is no point in trying to cut down the plastics we use on a daily basis but it does require change on an industrial scale.
"We encourage people to do what you can to get unnecessary plastics out of your own lives, but don't be fooled that that those individual actions alone will be sufficient to address this problem. We won't be able to recycle our way out of the plastics crisis," Muffett said. In fact, the only way to address the plastic crisis, he adds, "is to A) stop producing the fossil fuels that are the primary feedstocks for plastic and B) to stop producing single use disposable plastics that we don't need."