Surprising Increase in Single-Use Plastic: New Report Holds Industry Leaders Responsible

(Photo: Man rolls tire across plastic waste in Manila. Courtesy: Ocean Conservancy.)

(Photo: Man rolls tire across plastic waste in Manila. Courtesy: Ocean Conservancy.)

by | Feb 8, 2023

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(Photo: Man rolls tire across plastic waste in Manila. Courtesy: Ocean Conservancy.)

(Photo: Man rolls tire across plastic waste in Manila. Courtesy: Ocean Conservancy.)

Despite high consumer awareness and public circularity claims by polymer producers, a new report discovers that single-use plastic production is on the rise. In 2021, the petrochemical industry processed six million metric tons (MMT) more than when compared to 2019 data. Not only this but the majority of this tonnage is still made from fossil fuel-based “virgin” feedstocks. For the purposes of this report, the term “single-use plastics” is defined as those products with the shortest lifespan, ranging from three to six months.

In this second report from the Minderoo Foundation, the Plastic Waste Makers Index reveals for the first time the five primary polymers that generate the majority of single-use plastic waste globally, as well as the investors funding this activity.

“The fossil fuel giants aren’t tackling the problem of plastics – it’s the opposite, they’re making even more of a product that threatens our people and planet,” said Dr. Andrew Forrest AO, Chairman of Minderoo Foundation. “For the petrochemical industry to argue otherwise is greenwashing of the highest order.”

(Photo: The top 20 list of petrochemical companies producing virgin polymers bound for single-use plastic. Credit: 2023 Plastic Waste Makers Index, Minderoo Foundation.)

(Photo: The top 20 list of petrochemical companies producing virgin polymers bound for single-use plastic. Credit: 2023 Plastic Waste Makers Index, Minderoo Foundation.)

The report also maps out how the actual circularity scores of the top 20 polymer producers compare to their public claims about plastic circularity. Four companies in particular – Saudi Aramco, Borealis, Dow, and Braskem – conspicuously stand out for a high number of public claims, alongside a low rating for their actual efforts. Greenwashing, defined as “misleading the public to believe that a company or entity is doing more to protect the environment than it is” in a United Nations report, is prevalent in the petrochemical business.

Yet there is also encouraging news. Two companies, Far Eastern New Century and Indorama Ventures, are committed to recycling and are producing on-par recycled polymers at scale. The report also notes that since the 2021 publication, there are more signs that the industry is taking circularity seriously.

Often, single-waste plastics are considered primarily a pollution crisis. This report explains however that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from single-use plastics in 2021 were equivalent to the total emissions of the United Kingdom.

In response to the findings of the report, Nicholas Mallos, vice president of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Program, said, “More single-use plastics also means more greenhouse gas emissions polluting our atmosphere. It’s increasingly clear that single-use plastics production poses an existential threat and is incompatible with a healthy ocean, climate, and communities. We hope that this report helps demystify the sources and industries driving ocean plastic pollution and highlights the need for governments, investors, and companies to make plastics reduction a key part of climate action.”

Transparency across the plastics industry is key to business change. In a 2022 survey by Ipsos, an average of 75% of people across 28 countries wanted single-use plastics banned as soon as possible. Yet without documentation of the companies responsible, it is difficult for consumers – or product management leaders – to make informed decisions.

Typically, petrochemical companies support the move away from single-use plastics in their external communications, but their actions behind the scenes should be closely followed. For example, an anonymous email sent to Reuters in October 2021 revealed that the American Chemistry Council (ACC) was forging a coalition of oil and chemical firms to steer treaty discussions away from production restrictions.

In addition to transparency reporting, the Minderoo Foundation is working to help the industry by investing in technologies that can reduce recycling costs, create plastic alternatives, or remove plastic from nature, especially the ocean. Recently, the foundation selected Dr. Marcus Gover, the former CEO of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), to lead its No Plastic Waste Initiative. He brings in a wealth of experience, as one of the key movers behind the UK Plastics Pact. Launching this report was his first responsibility, and he will continue the foundation’s progress toward drafting a global plastics treaty.

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