Green Matters

Just a Few Choice Arguments as to Why Plastic Should be Banned

Plastic bags have already been banned in many places, but some argue that plastics themselves should be entirely abolished.

Oct. 22 2020, Updated 5:16 p.m. ET

In terms of recycling, the world is in a much better place than it was a few decades ago. Plastic bags have already been banned in many cities, counties, and countries the world over. Recycled plastic is being used to make just about everything you could imagine. Toys, bottles, tumblers, cutlery, and even a few recycling bins are just the beginning of what we can do with recycled plastic. 

Unfortunately, recycling and repurposing the plastic is like putting a Band-Aid on a wound that already needed stitches to begin with. Plastics are everywhere, and while some, like those used for cars or appliances, are a necessary evil, many can be completely eliminated; that’s the argument at least. But how feasible is this solution and why are plastics so bad in the first place?

Why is plastic bad for the environment?

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest problems facing our world today. It was first invented in 1907 by Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland. Made from petroleum products, Baekland’s “ bakelite ” plastic was a revolutionary material. It was lightweight, could withstand heat and cold, could hold up over time, and best of all, it was cheap and easy to mass-produce. Baekland couldn’t have anticipated that plastic’s long-term durability would end up making so detrimental and dangerous for the environment. 

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. When it does break down — after a very long time, mind you — it turns into harmful nodules of microplasti c. These microplastic motes find their way into waterways, where they are digested by other creatures, including humans. They sit in the gut, piling up and leeching harmful elements into the body. 

Why is plastic bad for humans?

On top of being a pollutant, plastic is known to emit some radiation, and there are theories that some plastic water bottles are carcinogenic if used over time. This means that even using a reusable plastic water bottle isn’t a great idea either. If plastic is so bad for people and so bad for the environment, why are we still using it? 

Plastic’s highly-disposable nature is part of the problem as well. We can use a bottle of Gatorade for a few minutes and throw the bottle away when we’re done. It’s too easy and it always has been. It was only when we finally started to see the piles of plastic growing around us, piling up in landfills, and taking up huge swaths of the Pacific Ocean , that we decided something should be done. 

Can plastic really be recycled?

Plastic can and has been recycled for decades now, but there are some experts who think that even this isn’t such a good idea. First of all, not all plastic can be recycled . Only certain types, used for certain purposes can be reused and repurposed. When we do recycle plastic, melting it down in order to reprocess it can send harmful burning plastic smoke into the atmosphere. And frankly, we have enough problems with our atmosphere as it is. 

Recycling can also be logistically and financially difficult. Plastic recycling requires specialized equipment that is not readily available. Recycling plants require energy to run and people to man them. And unlike plastic production, which is cheap and easily handled after so much practice, recycling offers far less return on investment for businesses. Thus, it’s not nearly as popular as it should be. Not to mention, only about 9 percent of plastic actually gets recycled .

Should plastic be banned?

Based on the convenience and necessity of plastic, there is little chance of any government or organization outright banning it. People wouldn’t allow it. We’ve all become too hooked on the availability and comfort of the stuff. The alternatives aren't well-known either, and that presents a problem in delivering a coherent message to the general public. However, there are several solutions that might make regulating plastic a bit easier. 

How can we ban plastic?

The first thing we could do is tax it. This has already been done with disposable grocery bags in some places, where many people are just not willing to pay an extra 10 cents for a plastic bag. That adds up over time. Of course, many consumers have rolled over in favor of convenience, plastic’s most staunch advocate. Recycling can only go so far as we discussed, but it is an option — though there's not much to do about non-recyclable plastics. 

Banning single-use plastics is the only true way to do it. Bags were a good start, but bottles, cups, straws, and cutlery will be a harder sell. This is especially true for small businesses and chains who rely on low-cost options to serve and sell their wares. In the end, allowances will always have to be considered. Unfortunately, until everyone is on board, plastics will remain an innocuous, yet destructive piece of our daily lives. 

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Don’t let the plastic get into the ocean.

  • Don’t Let the Plastic…

May 2, 2018

Guest post by Mark J. Spalding, President, The Ocean Foundation

23 April 2018

Do you use your reusable water bottle and coffee mug?

Do you use your reusable shopping bags?

Do you remember to say “no straw” when ordering a drink?

Good for you! You’re part of the solution.

Do you own a fleece vest or throw?

Do you own yoga wear or other synthetic clothing items?

Sorry. You’re part of the problem, too.

We all know that plastic waste is a problem. It is a particular problem for the ocean. Currently approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean every year! That’s enough to line every foot of our coast.

Ocean plastics can loosely be categorized in the following ways:

Marine Debris— This includes everything from construction materials to beer coolers, but when we’re talking about ocean plastics, we generally mean the bigger pieces that are easily seen and can readily be picked up. Part of this is debris from marine sources such as fishing gear.

Microplastics— These are the tiny pieces that plastic breaks into over time—not disintegrating, but simply fragmenting, making it ever more accessible to marine life. Microplastics are found in every part of our global ocean.

Microfibers— These are the very tiny fibers from your fleece, athletic, or other synthetic clothing that shed every time you wash them in a machine. They are everywhere in the ocean as well as in lakes, rivers, streams, and even your drinking water.

So, what does plastic in the ocean do? Some effects are not fully understood—such as the degree to which microfibers themselves or the toxins they carry cause harm in humans and other animals and at what scale. Others we know all too well.

Plastic poisons and injures marine life as shellfish, corals, and other marine life eat microplastics and fibers as they filter for real food. Whales, fish, and other animals get entangled in derelict fishing gear and other debris and die a slow painful death from asphyxiation or starvation. When animals—sea birds and corals for example—take in plastics, it leaves no room for real food—and they suffer starvation as a result.

Plastic is capable of emitting and absorbing or carrying all types of toxins, including flame-retardants and pesticides (DDT). Small pieces of plastics e.g. microplastics (microbeads, microfibers) can serve as vector for chemicals to get into the bodies of marine animals, where they can accumulate in fat cells. These can damage tissues and organ function. They can be absorbed into the brains of fish, altering behavior. Plastic is also a vector for bacteria and viruses.

These properties of plastic, especially microplastics, have implications for human health as we consume fish and shellfish. Two Belgian researchers, looking at the amount of microplastics in some shellfish, concluded in 2014 that the average European seafood consumer could be eating 11,000 pieces of microplastic every year. And that’s just in shellfish (mussels in particular in this case).

Plastic litters our beaches and landscapes which in turn affects tourism revenue. It’s no surprise that people like to visit clean beaches more than dirty ones. It also affects community health not only for the reasons above, but because plastic waste can collect water, allowing disease-bearing mosquitoes to breed, and poorly managed debris can clog the outflows of rivers and streams, causing flooding.

So, what is it about single-use plastics? They represent somewhere between a third and a half of all global plastics production, which reached about 335 million metric tons in 2016. Some single use plastics should stay that way—especially for hypodermics and other medical uses. Others should be used only when and where they meet a unique or emergency need—think plastic straws, bottled water, bottled sodas, and plastic packaging—and that’s probably not in the EU or the US. Finland is one leader on plastics management, the European Union is doing quite well over all.

The scale of use is overwhelming. We buy about 1 million plastic bottles every minute of every day! Where sanitation is a huge problem (e.g. hurricanes, floods, etc.) bottled water is a public health good and delivery in plastic is cheaper. But for daily use, it’s the more expensive choice, has a huge climate footprint, and is a big part of the plastic waste mismanagement problem. Only 1 percent of the 4 trillion plastic bags used annually is recycled. We use half a BILLION plastic straws a day in the U.S. alone—almost two for every man woman and child!

So where is the plastic coming from besides littering? More than two billion people live without any waste collection. In China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines ― which were identified in a 2015 Ocean Conservancy report as the top five plastic-polluting nations in the world ― the amount of mismanaged waste was close to 75 percent or more of the total waste generated. Getting a handle on that source at scale is a slow process because of the nature of governance in those countries and the ways in which waste disposal is managed.

Landfills can leak harmful pollutants into the watershed and plastics on top of a landfill can be carried away by the wind and rainwater. Out of 50 largest uncontrolled dumpsites around the world, 38 of these are on the coast and spill directly into the sea. Thanks to sea level rise and storms, coastal landfills are eroding everywhere creating challenges for waste managers even in places where waste management has been reasonably well-addressed. The United States is one of the world’s top five waste-generating developed countries.

Plastic waste to enter the ocean from land is expected to increase tenfold within 7 years. Can you even visualize 80 million metric tons?

More on the Danger to fish and humans:

What are the Trends? New uses for plastic are being discovered all the time—and the demand for lightweight, flexible, sterile, and inexpensive packaging and other materials grows as the population grows. Plastic production is growing exponentially and is expected to double again in 20 years. Thus, plastic waste is too.And, we’re not doing a great job of managing it. As of 2015, 6,300 million metric tons of plastic waste has been generated since the end of World War 2. Only about 9 percent of that has been recycled—the rest was burned, is sitting in landfills, or is slowly breaking into smaller pieces on land or in the water.

Perhaps the most famous example of the scale of the plastic problem in the ocean is the ever-expanding “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a gyre in the Pacific Ocean where currents and winds have fostered the movement of plastic waste into a defined area. The Patch is a mixture of marine debris, microplastics, and ocean life including microscopic crabs hitching a ride—and now covers an area three times the size of France! And it is just one of the five ocean gyres where plastic has collected.

But as famous as the Patch is, the sad truth is that plastic waste—at every scale—is found throughout the global ocean, in bays and estuaries, in the deepest crevasses, and the coastal marshes, mangrove forests, and seagrass meadows. It is everywhere.

So, how do we end plastic pollution?

We’re human. We’d like to engineer away the problem- like a magic pill to lose weight or live forever.

What removal system is being tested? It is likely you have heard of the young Dutchman Boyan Slat and his ocean boom system. The idea is that the booms will be towed out to the Pacific from San Francisco to begin operating next July. The system involves hanging nets from booms (made, of course from plastic pipe) and using drifting anchors positioned almost 2000 feet down to tap into where the ocean currents are slower than they are at the surface.

The idea is that the floating plastic debris will move faster than the booms, and thus be concentrated into a central area held by the booms. Fish and other sea life are expected to swim under the nets. Ships are to collect the gathered trash once a month to convert it to pellets or other purposes. Slat raised $2.2 million in crowdfunding from 40 countries, and millions more in California to test the prototype and begin the process of moving it thousands of miles out to sea for deployment.

The challenges include the potential for “corralling” of ocean life; addressing the incredible amount of energy (and expense) to go out to collect the trash and transport it back; as well as unintended consequences. And, of course, this collects plastic of a certain size at the surface and not the debris that has sunk nor the microplastics found everywhere. Booms have proven to be one good way to capture debris in streams and rivers to prevent their migration to the sea.

Prevention is key. The plastic already in the ocean is nearly impossible to collect, especially at scale, without harm to sea life.

It’s very simple really: Don’t let the plastic get into the ocean.

What you can do with your friends, colleagues, and family: Collectively, we are addressing many of the key problems, beginning with promoting personal action. None of what we recommend is new, and we hope repetition helps. Bad habits are hard to break—especially when it’s easier to just go with the plastic flow! The people who make the biggest difference are the ones who do the little things consistently.

  • Water: If you use a reusable water bottle, you personally could avoid an average of 156 plastic bottles annually—this sounds like a small thing but it’s doing your part and multiply it by everyone in your office, home, or school, and it really starts to add up. Likewise, bring your coffee mug with you—the go-cup might be paper, but the lid is probably not.
  • Carriers: Bringing your own bag to shop (and carrying one with you just in case) can help make a dent in those 4 trillion plastic bags used each year. Bag fees and bag bans do work to reduce waste—with immediate effect on cleanup statistics as to what is collected following their implementation.
  • Straws: Remembering to ask for no straw can become a habit. Straws only by request is a huge first step—and a great thing to ask of your favorite restaurant. Paper and reusable straws are an option too—and the movement is slowly growing.
  • Clothing: Limit how often you wash synthetic clothing, including fleece. Seek out natural fibers (bamboo, cotton, wool, etc.).
  • Entertainment: Remember our roots—we can use glasses, cloth napkins, and real cutlery at events as much as we can. We can use compostable tableware, napkins, and other products (and compost them).
  • Prevention: Beach, stream, and river clean ups actually help, even though they seem like a drop in the bucket. Many organizations host regular clean ups and we need everyone to pitch in and pick up in their own neighborhood.

Personal Action is a big start— but real change has to be regional, national, and even global in scale.

We are positioning plastic pollution as a major environmental and transnational problem—

  • multiple movies, events, and other outreach seems to have drastically increased ocean plastics awareness,
  • educated/mobilized citizens demand less plastic, and

choose to reject plastic where we can identify safer alternatives

  • increased public awareness of the role of NGOs in working towards change, especially where NGOs are working with governments at every level in Southeast Asian countries, and
  • increasing the public expectation that solutions will be implemented.

I should note that we all can be part of the outreach. A good starting point is Earth Day Network’s toolkits and web-based content to educate and support behavior change and action for different audiences.

Existing studies have shown us the sources and some of the pathways towards cost-effective solutions, but waste management and pollution prevention is a government scale challenge. Countries and corporations have to do their part—the public truly understands and expects them to fulfill this role.

And there is an inherent financial incentive to do so even beyond the obvious benefits. For example, governments and tourism businesses know that a clean beach makes money, and a dirty beach turns visitors away. The same sort of argument can be made for better waste management everywhere. Likewise, good waste management has a positive impact on public health which also reduces costs and increases productivity.

Corporations are working on a variety of solutions, some that monetize ocean plastics, and others that address a challenge. Patagonia and other outdoor clothing manufacturers are striving to figure out how to address the microfiber problem especially since synthetics have their own advantages. Adidas is producing the first shoe made from recycled ocean plastic. Bureo has its skateboard decks made from recycled fishing gear. Norton Point has its “Tide” line, featuring sunglasses made from recycled ocean plastic.

We need national government policies that mimic the European Union’s guidelines for waste and to promote the adoption of a global framework to regulate plastic pollution. Such polices:

  • aim to PREVENT the generation of waste
  • contribute to the REUSE of waste
  • REDUCE the adverse effects of  waste management

Governments need to respond to, and work with, NGOs organizing on the ground to promote waste management practices that improve public health and water quality. Some NGOs are working with small island communities to identify ways to substitute fuel or use alternative methods to burning plastic trash for cooking fuel—a practice that is harmful to humans and marine life alike.

To address packaging, we can all support policies in our communities that charge fees for plastic bags that in turn pay for cleanup and restoration and promote circular economy solutions to excess packaging waste. When local efforts to address plastic pollution are stymied by state governments, we can work to educate our legislators about the costs of dealing with plastic waste and the need for local and state action to reduce the amount we use it in the first place.

The R&D costs for alternatives to plastics, for better, cost-effective, and energy-efficient recycling methods, and to define cost-effective clean up solutions is way beyond more non-government organizations’ capacity. It’s a role for countries and corporations, and some exciting projects are under way.

For example, in 2016, Japanese scientists reported the discovery of bacteria that is able to digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—the plastic primarily used for making plastic bottles—in less than six weeks. More recently, scientists from the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S say they have engineered a plastic eating enzyme from that bacteria that breaks down PET even faster. It is going to now be tested on an industrial scale to see if it improves the management of plastics—better broken down into its constituent parts and reused than sitting in a landfill or blowing into the ocean. It is also to be hoped that any large-scale production of bacteria and enzymes is monitored carefully and managed for unintended consequences.

It is also possible that these processes will prove to be a cost-effective way to turn plastics back into constituent parts as fuel that can be used to generate electricity. Waste to energy also includes burning plastics for fuel, but we have to do it cleanly to avoid air pollution problems.

Personal action, corporate programs, and government strategies offer opportunities to address the global challenge of plastic pollution and the harm it inflicts on our ocean.

There is hope. All we have to do is to stop putting bad stuff into the ocean! And, this is why we get up each morning.

The content of this article reflects the Keynote speech given by Mark J. Spalding, President of The Ocean Foundation, at the Embassy of the Republic of Finland on April 23rd, 2018, during the Dialogue on Ending Plastic Pollution: Opportunities for the Public and Private Sectors. The event was co-hosted by Earth Day Network, DC Greening Embassies Forum, and the Embassy of Finland.

Mark is a member of the Ocean Studies Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. He is serving on the Sargasso Sea Commission. Mark is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Blue Economy, at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. In addition, he serves as the CEO and President of SeaWeb, is the advisor to the Rockefeller Ocean Strategy (an unprecedented ocean-centric investment fund) and designed the first-ever blue carbon offset program, SeaGrass Grow. 

  • #endplasticpollution
  • Dialogue on Ending Plastic Pollution
  • Earth Day Network
  • mark spalding
  • ocean foundation

EDN Staff

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The very properties that makes plastic so dangerous - its durability and long lifespan - also make it a great asset

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Humanity’s relationship with plastic is rather schizophrenic.

It is present in almost every aspect of modern life, from water bottles to aircraft. Without it, our lives would not be the same. However, it is now considered an environmental evil because of the havoc that plastic waste wreaks. We see it on our streets, in our rivers and lakes, on our beaches and even in our deepest oceans. There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean in 30 years, scientists estimate. Let us not be foolish enough to think the plastic will stay there. After it is eaten by fish and marine life, causing great damage, it enters the bodies of anyone who eats them.

Many environmental activists are calling for a ban on plastics. However, the very properties that make plastic so dangerous - its durability and long lifespan - also make it a great asset. A material that will not die or be destroyed for five hundred years is valuable. We can reuse it almost endlessly. The problem is not plastic itself. The problem is using it irresponsibly.

A material that can be constantly recycled is a great help to ecology and the economy, especially when the human population is growing rapidly and our lifestyle demands are increasing exponentially. The solution is not to ban plastic, but to ensure that it is used responsibly and recycled properly.

However, plastic recycling is a complicated issue . There are so many different grades of plastic, each requiring their own recycling process. Some of these plastic types are not even recyclable in a commercially viable manner. The process of collecting and sorting these different categories has many challenges, including technological capacity, and social awareness around disposal.

A blueprint to transform "filth into wealth" is the need of the hour. A comprehensive legal and policy framework to streamline and commercialize the process of plastic recycling must be created. It is the plastic industry’s responsibility to raise the necessary social awareness about responsible use and recycling. If we can show people that plastic is precious, you will not find a piece of plastic waste anywhere.

As host of World Environment Day 2018 , India must lead by example, by eliminating single-use plastic. Strict enforcement of law is key. If the world’s major powers, including India, China, the US and the EU, introduce this ban at a policy level, it will percolate easily to the rest of the world.

Humanity must realize that, given our current footprint, reusing and recycling everything is most important. Right now, we treat ecological concerns as an obligation to fulfil. They are not an obligation - our lives depend on them. Our very body is an extract from this planet. Preserving and nurturing Earth is no different from creating a good life for ourselves. Our life is an integrated, connected life. There can be no good life without a good planet.

Our ideas about development and the economy have removed us from this reality. It is time we realize that the fanciful notions we have about life and the world no longer work. We have to do something more mature. This maturity must come from business, industry and government.

In our lives, if we do not do what we cannot do, it is not a problem. But if we do not do what we can do, we are a disaster. It is my wish that we, as a generation, do not become a disaster.

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Plastic Dilemma: A Brief Essay on a Big Problem

Plastic Dilemma: A Brief Essay on a Big Problem

In the wake of COVID-19 Scott L. Montgomery sketches the outlines of the world's plastic problem, providing some of its key details, and also some of the major challenges faced in dealing with it effectively.

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, massive changes in energy use have happened. Transport and oil demand have fallen, in some places dramatically. Many say this is temporary. China’s oil use has nearly recovered, while other countries are relaxing restrictions. Some say car sales will die, others that electric vehicles will come alive , still others that airlines will be years in convalescence. Uncertainty reigns nearly everywhere. Not, however, in a domain of oil use often overlooked in climate discussions yet that is set to soar.

Overlooked, Not Hidden

Oil demand by the petrochemical industry has grown almost without pause since the late 1960s. Just this year, a massive new port opened in Texas nearly doubling US exports in the sector. The industry is the most energy-intensive in existence, and its core products—a wide variety of materials gathered under the title “plastics”—has increased in volume seven-fold over the last four decades , from 50 million tonnes in 1980 to 359 million tonnes in 2018.

The gods and mortals of chemical invention have been busy. New types of plastic and new applications for them have been a constant and a core part of growth. Such work has contributed directly to new consumer products from cellphones and laptops to CT scans and electric cars. In this sense, petroleum has come to penetrate societies worldwide far more than any other single resource besides air or water. To date, precious little in the realm of petrochemicals has come from non-fossil feedstocks, like biomass.

Plastic waste has drawn huge attention for necessary reasons. On the macro level, it forms choking masses in the oceans and ugly heaps in landfills everywhere, providing images that seem to threaten the interring of Earth’s entire surface. At a micro level, it is everywhere—air, land, water, rain, snow, food, drink, bodies. That it returns to haunt our own interior seems a form of revenge, except that the same is true for so many other species too. Some plastic is naturally degradable, with the timing for this ranging from years to centuries. Yet in many cases, the products include toxins that themselves are more resistant. In all cases, however, waste is a product of use, therefore production, driven by demand.

Plastics begin with the production of several starting materials made from oil and, to a lesser extent, natural gas. Most important among these materials are the chemicals ethylene (C2H4) and propylene (C3H6), with the former responsible for a greater range of products. Both are produced mainly from oil. In 2019, the global market for ethylene was $222.1 billion, but annual revenues for finished products were well over three times as much. Since 2015, the ethylene market has grown at a compound annual rate of 5.25%. Expansion is forecast to continue at a somewhat lower pace of around 4%-4.5%, which would mean world production doubling by the mid-late 2030s. This closely tracks the overall rise in plastics production, which has greatly outpaced many other sectors of global industry, including aluminum, steel, and cement, since the 1990s.

Growth in Demand

Much of this growth is due to rising demand for products made from ethylene’s main derivative, polyethylene. As its name suggests, this is created by linking ethylene units together into chains, which can vary in length from a few dozen to millions of units. Such huge variety supports a nearly equal diversity of plastic materials whose density, strength, durability, thermal conductivity, and other properties encourage applications in every sector of the modern economy. This means from industry and commerce to agriculture and construction, including electronics, solar panels, wind turbine rotors, toys, sports and medical equipment, cosmetics, eyewear, fabrics, insulation, yoga pants, packaging, and a great deal more (note: agrochemicals, fertilizers and pesticides, are not produced from ethylene but from other starting materials like ammonia, toluene, and benzene). At higher densities and strength, these plastics can even replace steel, e.g. in bone joint replacements. They are also specifically designed for unique projects that range from thin films in scientific research to body armor, airplane wings, and building materials.

In blunt but realistic terms, there is no area of modern life where plastics haven’t found use. Reasons for this are many but have a great deal to do with the immensely diverse and adaptive capabilities offered by this realm of human invention. It is neither an accident nor an oversight that plastic is used today to make cars lighter, safer, and more fuel efficient and to have a key part in every kind of “clean” technology, from lithium-ion batteries to LEDs (and, as noted above, renewable energy technologies as well). It is a point to be noted. Ridding the world of plastics does not appear a realistic option, any more than blithe acceptance of the waste problem.

Global demand for plastic worldwide, meanwhile, has been geographically shifting. According to recent analyses , such demand until the last decade was largely concentrated in Europe and North America. It has more recently moved to Asia and is expanding elsewhere. Wealthy nations currently make much greater use of plastic materials than developing countries, yet those with strong economic growth are rapidly catching up. Present and future demand growth are estimated to be highest in nations with rising incomes and a rapidly swelling middle class. This includes nations like China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Chile, and Peru, among others. Demand has also been growing in sub-Saharan Africa, which is likely to a major new center of use by mid-century.

Expanding plastic use correlates quite closely with more modern lifestyles and also technological development. This is especially true in areas like electronics, private vehicles, new housing, advanced medical care, and consumer goods in general. Over time, that is, plastic has come to progressively replace wood, metal, glass, and stone, which are heavier, less resilient, and often more expensive. Another important change furthering plastic demand has been food packaging, as populations with more income expand their diet from exclusively local foodstuffs to more diverse, transported, and increasingly imported items.

Regarding oil, this suggests a big change might be in the wind. Analysts today speak regularly about a coming peak in oil demand. Some say it may have already arrived with the pandemic. Either way, it will be aided by near-term increases in transport fuel economy and the spread of electric vehicles. Such a scenario would mean that oil’s real future lies with chemicals, not fuels. Would this be a good thing? In one sense, yes. The world wouldn’t be burning so much petroleum. But like so much else in the energy domain, the final answer is not so clear.

Double Role of Oil

Ethylene is mainly produced from oil. Petrochemicals account for as much as 14% of global oil demand, a major amount, due to the double use of oil as a raw material for ethylene and a fuel for the combustion-related reactions that produce it. Indeed, 14% is no trickle, especially when considering forecasts showing this level could double in the next 2-3 decades. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), petrochemicals “are rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil demand.” Between now and 2030, they are expected to increase the need for oil more than any other use sector.

Two major feedstocks from oil are especially important for making ethylene: naphtha, a fairly light hydrocarbon (C5-6H6-12) produced during crude oil refining; and ethane (C2H6) , a secondary component in natural gas and one of several Natural Gas Liquids (NGL; such gases also include butane, propane, and pentane, among some others). Naphtha has been increasingly generated by new refineries located in the Middle East and Northeast Asia. China, however, has been replacing some of its oil-derived naphtha with that from coal, which it has in abundance.

North America, on the other hand, is the world’s largest ethane producer. This feedstock was previously in limited supply but has exploded in abundance due to NGLs coming from the surge in shale oil and gas due to the fracking revolution. As it is cheaper to make ethylene from ethane, the US is becoming a highly competitive exporter, and hundreds of $billion has gone toward investing in new petrochemical facilities to become operational over the next 10-15 years. Here, there are real problems of pollution and impacts on nearby populations. It is not without reason or despair that a portion of the lower Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge is well-known as Cancer Alley . In this area, where more than 200 industrial facilities already exist, Shell and the Taiwanese company Formosa have applied to build two of the largest petrochemical plants in this area’s history, at $6 billion in the first case and $9.4 billion in the second.

Both of these projects will include “crackers.” This kind of facility is the most energy intensive (fuel consuming) part of a petrochemical complex. It includes a row of furnaces that heat the naphtha or ethane (or other feedstock) in the presence of steam to a temperature of 750-850 deg. C, where chemical bonds break, or “crack,” yielding new molecules, including ethylene. Cracking furnaces use significant amounts of water for steam, which prevents the formation of carbon-rich deposits, or coke, from the reaction. They also burn large amounts of hydrocarbon fuel, liquid or gas, giving oil a double role as a source of both feedstock and fuel.

The combustion process and steam reaction, together with flaring of unwanted gas fractions, create emissions of CO2 nitrous oxides (NOx), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Improvements in efficiency and other technological aspects have reduced such emissions, but release of CO2 remains high. In 2018-19, carbon emissions were around 0.9 gigatonnes (Gt), a figure projected to rise rapidly with expanding plastics demand unless methods of carbon capture and storage are introduced. Were this figure to double by the 2030s, as forecast , it would approximately equal the CO2 emissions from the entire aviation sector (pre-pandemic). Were it to triple, it would exceed the 2.4 Gt of all medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

At present, oil is playing yet another part in the advance of petrochemicals. This has to do with its low price and large over-supply on the global market. Part of this is due to the astounding surge in U.S. production, again due to shale development, but it has also been built by rises in output from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. The result—which has been true during the pandemic—is to make naphtha and oil-derived NGL especially cheap. These lower costs coupled with demand growth described above have given companies much reason to invest in new plants. As many as 470 projects are at various stages in 2020, with the largest number in the Asia-Pacific (mostly China), U.S., Russia, and the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Egypt), but others in Africa (Nigeria), Latin America (Brazil), and Western Europe (Netherlands). Some in the industry (and many observers) are worried that all this new investment will create excess capacity and bring a price crash. Readers here, however, might find such massive expansion daunting for other reasons.

Waste Not, Want More

With the above realities understood, it makes sense to deal more directly with the waste problem. There’s little doubt that this represents a young elephant now in the room that threatens to grow up fast. There is some good news here however, and some other news.

On the good side, the petrochemical industry has come to appreciate the power of imagery. This includes a stretch of beach heaped with containers, tubes, and plastic nets; a dead pelican its belly burst open with colorful lids and lighters; or a mountainous landfill of bottles and bags crawled over by birds and half-clad boys. The industry understands such views give it a dark halo in the public eye. If discussion at a recent Global Plastics Summit be any indication, industry leaders know things have to change. As described by one observer, ideas of a “circular economy” with “attention towards environmental concerns has created significant challenges and opportunities…across the globe.”

Then there are the key facts, the “other news,” summarized in two important studies. The first is an oft-mentioned paper in Nature, revealing that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (largest in existence), located between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii, is roughly 1.6 million km2 in size, i.e. France, Spain, Germany, and the UK combined. While some portion may break down under the combined effect of sunlight and saltwater, the i product will be microparticles suspended in the water column and deposited on the sea floor, thereby gaining a higher probability of becoming part of food webs. The second study appeared in Science and calculated that only about 9% of all plastic produced by 2015 had been recycled. Another 12% had been incinerated, adding to toxic fumes and carbon emissions and the remaining 79% sent to landfills or litter.

The Science study is troubling for several reasons. Common claims are that 20% - 25% of all plastic is recycled in advanced countries (more in Europe!). In many Western cities, we have grown happily accustomed to seeing green-colored garbage trucks come to collect our urban waste, including plastic items, every week. But, in fact, this is often a mask. Up to half of plastic waste collected by recycle programs ends up being sold to developing countries —particularly China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Turkey, where it is mostly put into landfills or incinerated. Further behind the scenes, moreover, lies a black market trade in plastic waste, one that has been greatly expanded since China stopped accepting most foreign plastic waste in 2018, reportedly because it can no longer do this while dealing with the rising volume of its own waste. China’s precedent has been partly followed by other countries, like Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. This has meant the shifting of waste to poorer nations , like Cambodia, Laos, and Ethiopia. In all of these places, environmental rules tend to be fewer and much less enforced than in wealthy nations.

Observations and Conclusions

In view of the above facts and realities, there are a number of points that can be made about the status of the world’s plastic dilemma at present.

  • The current mantra of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” tends to place responsibility on the consumer, so will not solve the problem. Yet it does highlight the “circular economy” idea, which seeks to keep materials and products in use, restricting creation of waste. 
  • Bans against certain plastics (e.g. single-use bags) can be helpful though not a solution. If widespread and combined with regulation, bans may pressure companies to reduce such forms. Calling for less plastic overall, however, is unlikely to succeed given the scale of rising demand in developing countries.  
  • Reuse is a sensible and feasible element to control waste in some forms, e.g. containers and bottles. Industry must be involved to better design these forms for safe, repeated use. This requires incentives and, possibly, regulations.  
  • Most plastic cannot be recycled using mainstream technology. This is true for any plastic contaminated by food, dyes, glue, glass, or other substances (most packaging, sports equipment, toys, etc.). Due to low oil prices, recycling facilities have struggled in most wealthy nations and have not greatly affected the plastic waste stream.
  • Molecular (“advanced”) recycling reduces plastic back to its original feedstock (e.g. ethylene) and is viewed by many in industry as essential to dealing with waste. Such recycling, utilizing present and emerging technologies, faces a number of challenges —technical, logistical, economic—that keep it from large-scale use.  
  • Use of bio- or “renewable” feedstocks represent a possible solution for certain plastics, able to reduce both waste and emissions. So-called “green plastics” currently have limitations, such as less durability (2-5 year shelf life) and higher cost. They cannot now replace petro-plastics but are advancing and, by 2019, were  3% of the global market.  
  • There exists an important, unresolved debate between burying waste to sequester its carbon and incinerating it to generate electricity or district heating. If the first option does little for the waste dilemma, the second can release dioxins and makes climate sense only with carbon capture & storage (CCS), currently non-commercial. Europe reportedly incinerates 42% of its plastic waste, the U.S. 12.5%
  • Though the petrochemical industry does understand the waste and emissions problems, it seems to lack the needed incentives to make major changes and pursue opportunities that would improve sustainability. This is partly because the industry remains highly fragmented, unguided by consistent or international standards, and reluctant to take on new areas of cost that might impact competitiveness.
  • The company or companies that do successfully evolve toward more sustainable production of plastics stand to gain an enormous competitive edge. A key part of this involves transforming waste into raw material, thereby lowering demand for virgin plastic, reducing emissions, and advancing the circular economy.
  • Solving the waste problem will require much R&D investment. Though current thinking would leave this to industry, there are strong arguments for public-private partnership. The problem affects people and the natural world directly. Good stewardship of the environment and climate is fully shared by government and industry.

These conclusions are far from the final word on this pressing subject. I have tried, instead, to sketch the outlines of the problem, some of its key details, and also some of the major challenges faced in dealing with it effectively. I have left out important realities, those dealing with the political dimensions, industry culture, the realm of accusations and claims-making, and more. There’s no doubt that the struggles and battles being fought here reflect those in other areas of fossil fuel use. But they are different, too, in that the reality of all the materials and products gathered under the word “plastic” are now commensurate with daily life in modern societies everywhere. The transformations needed here are as profound as any needed in the face of growing climate impacts.

Scott L. Montgomery is an author, geoscientist, and affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle. He has 25 years' experience in the energy industry, where he worked on projects in many parts of the world. His many technical publications include papers, monographs, articles, and textbooks, mainly focused on cutting edge hydrocarbon plays, technologies, related impacts and issues.

Photo by  Magda Ehlers  from  Pexels


Book Review - Global Legitimacy Crises: Decline and Revival in Multilateral Governance

Book Review - Global Legitimacy Crises: Decline and Revival in Multilateral Governance

Here to stay? Challenges to liberal environmentalism in regional climate governance

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California Tried to Ban Plastic Grocery Bags. It Didn’t Work.

A ban on single-use bags included an exemption for bags meant to be reused and recycled. Except, they weren’t. New legislation aims to fix that.

A person wearing sandals and shorts carries a reusable shopping bag in one hand, and several disposable plastic bags in the other.

By Hiroko Tabuchi

Almost a decade ago, California became the first state in the United States to ban single-use plastic bags in an effort to tackle an intractable plastic waste problem.

Then came the reusable, heavy-duty plastic bags, offered to shoppers for ten cents. Designed to withstand dozens of uses, and technically recyclable, many retailers treated them as exempt from the ban.

But because they didn’t look much different from the flimsy bags they replaced, lots of people didn’t actually reuse them. And though they came emblazoned with a recycling symbol, it turned out that few, if any, actually were recycled.

The unhappy result: Last year, Californians threw away more plastic bags, by weight, than when the law first passed, according to figures from CalRecycle, California’s recycling agency.

Now, lawmakers are trying to fix that. A new bill seeks to ban all plastic bags offered at the checkout line, including the heavy duty kind. (Shoppers would still be able to pay for a paper bag.)

“It’s time for us to get rid of plastic bags all together,” said State Senator Ben Allen, a Democrat and a sponsor of the bill.

By some accounts, California’s initial plastic bag ban was a well-meaning but failed experiment, an environmental rule that backfired and inadvertently made the matter worse. “We didn’t worry about the carve-out for these thicker bags in the early days,” said Mark Murray, director of Californians Against Waste, an advocacy group. “It just didn’t seem like they were going to be the thing that they ultimately became.”

The pandemic, which sparked concerns that carrying around reusable bags could spread the virus, led to “an explosion in these thicker plastic bags,” he said. Basically, people were using the thicker bags just once.

The average time shoppers used a plastic bag? Twelve minutes, according to the bill’s sponsors.

Some advocates say the initial ban would have been effective if properly enforced. The ban, adopted in 2014, allowed for plastic bags to be sold to shoppers only if they were widely recycled in California.

However, “No bag manufacturer or retailer could show any evidence of them being recycled,” said Jan Dell, founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, a nonprofit group. Over the past year, she’s led an effort to sue retailers that sell the thicker plastic bags, saying their sale is prohibited by the original ban.

Even if the new law passed, billions more bags would probably be sold before it came into effect in 2026, she said. “If the initial law was enforced, we would have no more of those bags, today.”

Daniel Conway of the California Grocers Association said retailers had “followed the letter of the law.” He said he hoped new legislation would clear up any confusion that remained over the thicker bags.

“We see this as finishing what we started,” he said. “People are really starting to accept that they bring reusable bags with them when they go to the grocery store.”

America’s Plastic Makers, an industry group, said in a statement that manufacturers “have been steadfast in scaling up a system where we remake new plastic from used plastic.” Policymakers needed to work with companies so that policies wouldn’t “result in worse environmental outcomes,” said Ross Eisenberg, the group’s president.

Other states have learned from California’s experience. In New York, which banned plastic bags at most store checkouts in 2020, environmental advocates successfully pushed back against a proposed provision that would have allowed stores to keep providing thicker plastic bags. (And there have been numerous examples of stores not complying with the ban, they say.)

Hawaii, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Oregon, Vermont and New Jersey have also adopted some semblance of a plastic bag ban.

“Lawmakers at every level need to be alert and know that the makers of plastic bags will look for every opportunity to keep flooding the market with thicker plastic bags,” said Judith Enck, president of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics, and a former regional administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Despite its setback over plastic bags, California remains at the forefront of efforts to curb plastic waste, which is everywhere, littering beaches and streams and also contaminating food and drinking water in the form of microplastics.

In 2021, California passed a truth-in-advertising law that bans companies from using the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol unless they can prove the material is, in fact, recycled in most California communities. The following year, it passed a bill that shifts the onus of recycling and waste disposal from local communities to plastic producers and packaging companies.

California has also turned its scrutiny toward fossil fuel companies, which produce the petroleum from which plastics are made. In 2022, the California state attorney general, Rob Bonta, opened an investigation into allegations that the industry played a role in deceiving the public into thinking that recycling could solve the plastic waste crisis.

Industry groups have rejected the allegations and have vowed to remain focused on improving recycling. In the United States, the recycling rate has been stuck below 10 percent for decades .

Hiroko Tabuchi covers the intersection of business and climate for The Times. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Tokyo and New York. More about Hiroko Tabuchi

Learn More About Climate Change

Have questions about climate change? Our F.A.Q. will tackle your climate questions, big and small .

New satellite-based research reveals how land along the East Coast is slumping into the ocean, compounding the danger from global sea level rise . A major culprit: overpumping of groundwater.

The planet needs solar power. Can we build it without harming nature ? Today’s decisions about how and where to set up new energy projects will reverberate for generations.

Carbon-free electricity has never been more plentiful, but it hasn’t yet been enough to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. We looked at how electricity generation has changed over time to help you understand today’s global picture .

Singapore is rethinking its sweltering urban areas to dampen the effects of climate change. Can it be a model for other cities ?

Whether you’re looking to make your home more energy-efficient, install solar panels or buy an electric car, this guide can help you save money and fight climate change .

Did you know the ♻ symbol doesn’t mean something is actually recyclable ? Read on about how we got here, and what can be done.

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Plastic Pollution In The Ocean

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