Still Bigger Mountains Of Plastic On The Way

Gabriel Levy examines the plastic world we live in. 

Oil, gas and petrochemicals companies are responding to public revulsion about plastic waste in their own special way: by investing billions to Increase plastics production.

Thanks to their efforts, global output of ethylene and propylene, the two main raw materials for plastics production, is expected to rise by one-third in the next seven years.

Plastic waste in Mumbai, India. From the India Water Portal web site

I am all in favour of campaigns to cut down the insanely wasteful use of plastic bottles, bags and packaging. But let’s also make sure we understand the root of the problem: systems of production and consumption that aim only to raise output, and the mighty corporate interests that control them.

The trail from gas, oil and coal production, through petrochemicals plants, to manufacturing and trading companies thatgorge on needless mountains of plastic, has been well researched by campaigning NGOs, lawyers and journalists. Here is People & Nature’s handy guide:

Production: the US shale gas boom

Nearly all plastics are made from coal, oil or gas (see “Quick chemistry catch-up”, below). The recent boom in shale gas production has caused US gas supply to outstrip demand. That in turn has triggered a wave of investment in petrochemicals plants that make ethylene, the key raw material for several types of plastic.

In other words, it is the availability of cheap raw material – not any obvious human need – that is driving plastics production growth.

The US government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) said in a report last month that three new ethylene plants (called “cracking” plants) had started up in 2017, and another six are due to come on line this year and next. The EIA forecasts that US consumption of ethane, the intermediate product from which ethylene is made, will in 2019 be one-third higher than in 2017 (1.6 million barrels per day (bpd), up from 1.2 million bpd), and that exports of ethane to be processed elsewhere will rise by 70%, to 310,000 bpd, by 2019.

The EIA sees extra ethane consumption as the most significant result of rising US shale gas production. More extra ethane will be consumed in the US than all other hydrocarbons put together, its analysts think.

On top of those ethylene crackers already being built, a huge queue of 264 new petrochemicals investments – about $164 billion worth – are underway or planned, according to the American Chemistry Council, an industry lobby group. That announcement was made the year before last, and more than half of those (55%) were only at the planning stage – and, thank goodness, facing strong public opposition in many cases. Nevertheless, 40% were completed or underway.

There’s a survey of fracking’s role in driving plastics production by Food and Water Watch here. And a report on the petrochemicals projects by the Centre for International Environment Law (CIEL) highlighted:

■ An agreement between ExxonMobil and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, to build 11 processing plants – including a $10 billion ethane cracker, which will be the biggest in the world – in Portland, Texas. The plan is meeting community resistance.

■ A plan by Total to build a new ethane cracker and a new polyethylene plant in Texas, in partnership with Borealis and Nova.

■ Six new cracking facilities proposed in North Dakota, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

From the US Energy Information Administration web site

European petrochemicals companies are at a disadvantage against their American competitors, who have cheap gas, and their Chinese competitors, who have cheap coal. But INEOS is planning to
expand its production of ethylene and propylene anyway. The new ethylene output will be added to its plants at Grangemouth, Scotland, and Rafnes, Norway, and a new plant at Antwerp, Belgium will produce propylene.

In Scotland, INEOS has started a legal challenge against the government’s ban on fracking – and is being staunchly opposed, e.g. by local groups affiliated to Frack Off. For convincing arguments against INEOS’s plans, see the Food and Water Europe blog.

Production: plastic from Chinese coal and Middle East oil

East Asia overtook Europe as the largest plastics producing region in the mid 2000s – and China accounts for most of that production. China expects to increase its propylene output by 6.9% each year up to 2025.

China, which has plenty of cheap coal, is developing processes to get the raw material for plastics production out of it (see “Quick chemistry catch-up” below). CIEL’s excellent report explains that China’s coal-to-olefins (i.e. plastics feedstocks) capacity grew more than seven times over, to 7.92 million tonnes per year, between 2011 and 2015.

These investments “clash with China’s expressed environmental goals and its shared planetary interest in a safe climate, as coal-to-olefins production is massively carbon intensive”, CIEL points out.

China is also investing in more traditional processes for producing ethylene and propylene from crude oil, with output expected to be 90% higher in 2030 than it was in 2015.

The growth of US and Chinese petrochemicals capacity follows on the heels of a period of rapid expansion of the industry in the Middle East, between about 2008 and 2016. One mammoth project – Sadara Chemical Company, a joint venture between Dow Chemical and Saudi Aramco – is still under construction in Saudi Arabia. It will produce 3 million tonnes per year of ethylene when it’s built. Many other plants that have gone up in the last decade are already in operation across the region.

Consumption: it’s all about the supply chains

Public anger about the wasteful use of plastic tends to focus on the stuff we can see: bottles, carrier bags and seemingly endless quantities of wrapping. In reality, that’s a significant but still minor part of the whole picture. Much bigger quantities of plastic are used for wrapping and transporting goods before they even get to the shops. About twice as much plastic is used in these pre-shop supply chains than by people who buy stuff, according to the best estimates, i.e.:

A report commisioned in 2014 by the United Nations Environment Programme, Valuing Plastic, said that, in the consumer goods industry, the amount of plastic by weight used in packaging was about the same as the amount actually contained in the products consumer goods, and about half of what was used in the supply chain.

(To quote the report exactly: “Overall, the global weighted average of plastic-in-packaging used in the consumer goods industry is 2 tonnes per $1m revenue; of plastic-in-product 2 tonnes per $1m revenue; and of plastic-in-supply-chain 4 tonnes per $1m revenue” (page 27). There is plenty wrong with the report, which is based on the idea of assigning a monetary value (“natural capital”) to the ecological impact of economic activity. I think that’s a really bad approach. But this particular comparison holds good.)

■ An exhaustive research project by a team at the University of Cambridge estimated that, in the UK, 10-20 kg of plastic packaging per head comes into the home, but that 30 kg of plastic packaging per person is used to get goods from one factory to another, or from factories to shops. Twice as much, on average. In Sustainable Materials With Eyes Wide Open, a publication aimed at explaining the research to the public, the team wrote: “This industrial packaging is hidden from our consumer eyes.” Unlike consumer packaging, it exists solely to protect good in transit, and is an excellent target for “life extension for re-use” (pages 310-311).

The people who control the plastics industry respond to such points by funding reports that stress how useful plastics can be. One such report, published in 2016 by the American Chemistry Council, argued that replacing plastics in all applications with other materials would produce even more negative environmental impact. The logic is obviously twisted.

Humanity is collectively clever enough to find ways to do things that do not ruin the world we live in. The starting point has to be to find those ways, not to compare bad with worse. In the case of plastics, a complete re-working of supply-chain packaging might be one place to start. Simply using less stuff, rather than replacing one type of stuff with another, is worth looking at too.

Waste, waste, waste: the failure of recycling

Only 9% of all the plastic ever produced was recycled, an international team of university-based researchers recently concluded from a massive research project. Another 12% was incinerated, and 79% “accumulated in land-fills or the natural environment”. (Their article, unlike so many these days, is free to download here. Good for them!)

Cows grazing in (mostly plastic) rubbish, Delhi, India. Photo by Monika

The disastrous failure of recycling is also a central theme of a well-researched report by the Ellen Macarthur foundation, The New Plastics Economy

More than 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. When additionalvalue losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use. […] The recycling rate for plastics in general is even lower than for plastic packaging, and both are far below the global recycling rates for paper (58%) and iron and steel (70-90%). In addition, plastic packaging is almost exclusively single-use, especially in business-to-consumer applications (page 17).

The excess of plastic waste in the oceans, highlighted by David Attenborough and his team in the Blue Planet II series, has been quantified by scientific research. About 70% of all waste dumped in the oceans is plastic. Marcus Eriksen and a team at the Five Gyres Institute in California, USA, estimated that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing more than 260,000 tonnes, are floating at sea. Another team, headed by Jenna Jambeck at the University of Georgia, USA, reckoned that the quantity of plastic that has sunk into the oceans is 10-30 times as heavy as that floating pile of garbage. More recently, researchers have studied the effects of plastic microparticles, invisible to the naked eye, that are embedded in sea plants and animals and, increasingly, in food chains.

Aaaaargh!! What can we do?

I don’t believe in putting simple “answers” to difficult problems in my blog posts. The conclusion from the above is that the surge of plastics production in recent decades is a striking example of capitalism doing what it does: expanding production and creating markets, oblivious both to the human suffering and the damage to our natural surroundings it causes. The upturn in plastics production expected in the next few years has not been caused by any change in consumers’ behaviour, but in the sudden availability of cheap gas (in the USA) and coal (in China). Capitalism doing what it does.

As for resisting this insanity, I suppose that, for one thing, we (by which I mean, social and labour movements who oppose capitalism and the havoc it causes between humanity and nature) should find ways of putting our ideas across to people all around us who can see what’s going on, but don’t know what to do about it.

For example, here in the UK, it has been encouraging to see the public outrage about plastic waste in the oceans, triggered by the frightful scenes broadcast in the Blue Planet II series. Yes, people are human: when we are reminded e.g. that albatrosses, our fellow creatures, are unwittingly feeding plastic to their young, or that other sea creatures are being dragged to a painful death by webs of plastic garbage, it makes us angry.

In the labour movement, we need to combat simplistic productivist dogma (the assumption that increased production of everything, rising economic output, etc, is necessarily good for us) and refuse the false choice of jobs-vs-a-livable-planet. Socialism is surely a view of the future that envisages us all living productively and creatively, and without trashing the world around us. It’s doable.

Everywhere, we need to combat the cynical protection of corporate interests inherent in consumer campaigns. Sure, restaurants could stop using plastic straws. But that is no substitute for questioning the logic of the logistics industry, where much greater quantities of plastic is used and wasted.

Quick chemistry catch-up

There are five “standard plastics” that make up about 85% of the total consumed: polyethylene (32%), polypropylene (23%), polyvinyl chloride or PVC (16%), polystyrene (7%) and polyethylene terephthalate or PET (7%).

Polypropylene is made from propylene, and the other four are made from ethylene. Both ethylene and propylene are hydrocarbons, produced by “cracking” (a conversion process) either from natural gas liquids (i.e. condensate and other liquid hydrocarbons that come out of the ground together with natural gas), or from naphtha (an oil-based liquid produced in crude oil refining).

It is also possible to make plastics from coal derivatives, and China – which has plenty of coal but less oil and gas – is investing heavily in technology that makes propylene from methanol (a hydrocarbon that can be produced from coal) or gas oil (a product of oil refining). Technologies such as methanol-to-propylene are collectively called coal-to-olefins (olefins is the chemical term for a group of hydrocarbons including ethylene, propylene and butadiene).

Sources: a CIEL report, the American Chemistry Council, and the EIA.

Alisher Usmanov. Photo from

And the last word on this goes to …

… Alisher Usmanov, the billionaire part-owner of Arsenal Football Club. Usmanov, who now controls some of Russia’s largest steel-making, media and internet companies, claimed in an 
interview that he made his initial fortune by manufacturing plastic bags. The Soviet Union, until its collapse in 1991, had been largely free of western-style consumerism. People carried textile or string bags in their pockets in case they passed a shop or kiosk selling stuff they needed. But in the late 1980s, as manifestations of consumer capitalism began to appear on the streets of Soviet cities, former convict Usmanov – according to his own account – was “holed up with a broken leg in a hotel […], and had as a room-mate an engineer for a petrochemicals company. Usmanov read a book the man left behind, and discovered that with one tonne of polymer he could make 30,000 to 36,000 plastic bags. That tonne cost 437 rubles; a bag typically retailed for a ruble. The economics were irresistible. Usmanov borrowed an unspecified amount of money to make use of a factory (still ‘Soviet property’, he says) at night. Soon he was undercutting rivals by selling bags for 60 kopecks.” The point of the story is that cheap raw materials, and the profit motive, produced huge quantities of plastic where there had been none before. The same thing is happening now, on a much bigger scale.

Gabriel Levy blogs @  People and Nature.

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