Report: Single-use plastic production increasing, with dire climate consequences

Image: Minderoo Foundation

That is the headline conclusion of a damning new report from philanthropic organisation the Minderoo Foundation, under its ‘No Plastic Waste’ initiative.

Published on Monday (6 February), the ‘Plastic Waste Makers Index’ report uses data for the 2021 calendar year relating to plastic production, recycling rates, investments by plastic-producing companies and other linked issues. This data is compared to the data collected by the Foundation that related to 2019, for the inaugural version of this index.

Its first key finding is that six million metric tonnes more single-use plastic was produced in 2021 than in 2019. This could be partially attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic, with single-use plastic used in applications such as testing kits, disposable masks, face shields and other protective clothes and accessories. But the report also tracks precious little progress in reducing single-use plastics elsewhere.

Most of these plastics will not have been recycled or reused. The majority will have ended up in landfill, incineration or in the natural environment. There is simply not enough global recycling capacity to handle all single-use plastics manufactured annually, with the Foundation noting that capacity is concentrated in developed markets where demand for recycled plastics is stronger and that 85% of the global population suffers under “chronically underfunded” plastic waste management.

Moreover, some single-use plastic formats simply cannot be recycled using existing technologies.

Material world

The Foundation concluded that, despite pledges from businesses to source more recycled and bio-based plastics, the global single-use plastic stock in 2021 was “still almost entirely made from fossil-fuel-based virgin feedstocks”. This is partly due to challenges in scaling recycling capacity.

Just 2% of the single-use plastics produced in 2021 were from recycled feedstocks according to the report.

ExxonMobil, Sinopec and Dow were the top three petrochemical companies in terms of total virgin plastic production in 2021 by the Foundation’s calculations. More than half of global production that year could be traced back to just 20 petrochemical companies.

The Foundation warns that this problem is unlikely to be rectified this decade, with most plastic-producing companies investing in recycling as “a marginal activity at most”. The report predicts that just an additional three million metric tonnes of plastic recycling capacity will be installed globally between 2021 and 2027, with the petrochemical industry accounting for only a minority (700,000 million metric tonnes) of this capacity.

For context, global single-use plastic production in 2021 stood at 137 million metric tonnes. Minderoo Foundation is predicting that it will increase to 154 million metric tonnes by 2027. It is expecting just 3% of the plastics produced in 2027 will be recycled.

The Foundation is using the report to call on all polymer producers to aim for at least 20% of the single-use plastics they produce in 2030 to be from recycled feedstocks. It also calls on investors in these firms to support this “clear, ambitious, time-bound target” – or, at the very least, to demand specific targets on recycled vs virgin feedstocks.

Emissions focus

The report highlights how, because plastics are fossil-derived and commonly dumped, landfilled or burned, they are a considerable contributor to annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the Foundation, global emissions from single-use plastics in 2021 were equivalent to around 450 million metric tonnes of CO2e. This is more than the annual emissions of the UK.

“Unsurprisingly, the largest producers of polymer are also the largest GHG emitters,” the report states. “However, emissions intensity (metric ton of CO2e per metric ton of plastic) varies based on what polymers are produced (with polyethylene terephthalate and polystyrene being more intensive than polyethylene and polypropylene) and how they are produced (with coal-to-olefins technologies being far more intensive than those using gas or naphtha as feedstock).”

It warns that emissions from the plastics lifecycle could increase this decade if concerted efforts are not made to limit production growth, scale recycling and scale alternatives including bio-based alternatives, plastic-free alternatives and reusables. This is a warning that has also been previously issued by WWF.

The Foundation states that mechanical recycling can reduce lifecycle emissions by at least 30%, but notes that this is not possible for all plastic formats. It also notes that recycling is only “part of the solution” for the plastics industry in the transition to a net-zero economy.

It states that the root cause of the issue is that petrochemical companies have kept plastics so cheap by failing to reflect any of their negative externalities in their price, with other actors often having to pay the environmental and social price of plastic pollution. Now, it argues, this industry must play its part in creating economies of scale for recycling and recycled content while acknowledging that it cannot plan for infinite growth in the future.

The Foundation concludes that it has only some “cautious optimism” that the petrochemical industry will make changes by itself. It says that the vast majority of companies are only “paying lip service” to the net-zero transition and the circular economy.

As such, the report sets out a series of interventions that can be made by policymakers, investors in the petrochemical sector and companies at other parts of the plastics value chain.

Commenting on the report, A Plastic Planet’s co-founder Sian Sutherland urged governments to “sit up and take notice”.

She said: “Effective environmental policy is not a box-ticking exercise. This report demonstrates that a policy of recycling above all else will not bring about the change we require. If we are to truly protect our planet, a revaluation of our relationship with the natural world must occur.

“In the UK, we must urgently wean ourselves off plastic fossil fuels and instead build upon the ambition that Defra has previously shown in the recent announcements on single-use plastic bans. It is only comprehensive systems change that will put a halt to the dangerous path we continue to walk down.”

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