Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Our Plastic Planet

A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute with most ending up in landfill or the sea.  8.3bn tonnes of plastic since the 1950s have been produced. Global plastic is already causing widespread damage to oceans, habitats and food chains, is set to increase dramatically over the next 10 years after multibillion-dollar investments in a new generation of plastics plants in the US. New plastic production facilities that will swamp efforts to move the global economy away from single use, throw away plastic products.The huge investment in plastic production has been driven by the shale gas boom in the US. This has resulted in one of the raw materials used to produce plastic resin – natural gas liquids – dropping dramatically in price.

“I can summarise the boom in plastics facilities in two words,” Kevin Swift, chief economist at the ACC, told the Guardian. “Shale gas.” He added: “There has been a revolution in the US with the shale gas technologies, with the fracking, the horizontal drilling. The cost of our raw material base has gone down by roughly two thirds.”
Steven Feit, from the Centre for Environmental International Law which has researched the impact of the US shale boom on plastics, said: “The link between the shale gas boom in the United States and the ongoing – and accelerating – global plastics crisis cannot be ignored. “In the US, fossil fuel and petrochemical companies are investing hundreds of billions of dollars to expand plastic production capacity... All this buildout, if allowed to proceed, will flood the global market with even more disposable, unmanageable plastic for decades to come.”
The American Chemistry Council says that since 2010 this has led to $186bn dollars being invested in 318 new projects. Almost half of them are already under construction or have been completed. The rest are at the planning stage. Fossil fuel companies like Exxon Mobile Chemical and Shell Chemical are among those who have ploughed investment into new facilities that will produce the raw material for everyday plastics from packaging to bottles, trays, and cartons. The new facilities will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade, according to experts, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis.  Earlier this year scientists warned that it risked near permanent contamination of the planet and at a UN environment conference in Kenya this month the scale of plastic in the sea was described as an “ocean armageddon”.

Trump’s state visit to Saudi Arabia in May featured a little-noted deal signed set to worsen plastic pollution. ExxonMobil sealed a $10bn agreement with the state-owned Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) to build the world’s largest plastics facility on the Texas coast, lavished with more than $1bn in tax breaks by local authorities in Texas to locate the plant on farmland just north of Corpus Christi, the spearhead of a US boom that will create an enormous new glut of bottles, food packaging, polyester clothing and other products that are already, once discarded, choking the world’s oceans and food chains. The Exxon-Sabic project, which will annually produce 1.8m tonnes of ethylene, a key building block of plastics, is just one of 11 chemical, refining, lubricant and gas projects Exxon is building along the US Gulf coast. The region is being divvied up in a multi-billion dollar push by fossil fuel companies.
An analysis of 184 planned chemical plants, many of them strung along the coast of Texas and Louisiana, showed they would collectively emit around 216m tons of greenhouse gases a year once complete. Opponents of the sprawling plant warn that it will produce trillions of small polyethylene pellets that will inevitably find their way into the bay and surrounding landscape, where they would be gobbled by fish or endangered species such as the whooping crane and piping plover. The facility will also release millions of gallons of piping hot effluent into the bay, a prospect that has spooked fishers, and suck up 20m gallons of water a day in part of the US that has been parched by drought.
“Many of these projects are approved so quickly that you are left with highly polluting operations,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former senior official at the US Environmental Protection Agency, pointed out. “The Gulf coast is a place already covered in pipelines and storage tanks, but it’s now transforming. The scale is overwhelming."

We could be locking in decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realising we should use far less of it,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the US Center for International Environmental Law. “Around 99% of the feedstock for plastics is fossil fuels, so we are looking at the same companies, like Exxon and Shell, that have helped create the climate crisis. There is a deep and pervasive relationship between oil and gas companies and plastics.”

Greenpeace UK’s senior oceans campaigner Louise Edge said, “We are already producing more disposable plastic than we can deal with, more in the last decade than in the entire twentieth century, and millions of tonnes of it are ending up in our oceans.”

Athough the majority of the new investment is in the US, the impact will ripple outwards in the form of vast new supplies of raw materials for plastics being transported to Europe and China. Petrochemical giant Ineos has been shipping natural gas liquids from the US to  plants in Europe and the UK on huge “dragon ships” for the past year. Last month the company announced it will ship the first NGLs from the US to China in 2019 where it will be turned into plastic resin at a new facility in Taixing China.
Roland Geyer, from the University of California at Santa Barbara, explained, “I am now all but convinced that the plastic waste/pollution problem will remain unmanageable without serious source reduction efforts. Building out production capacity is obviously the opposite of source reduction.” 

Cherri Foytlin, who heads a community environmentalist group sums it all up. “It’s silly to think we should destroy the planet for a few moments of convenience. My grandma didn’t have plastic cups, we used old mixing jars. I don’t need that junk. We should recycle or make things out of wood or glass. I mean, how much more plastic do we need anyway?”

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