Single-Use Plastic Production Surged in 2021, Despite Growing Awareness of Environmental Impact
In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the risk that single-use plastics pose to the environment and human health as well as greater efforts made to regulate them.
Despite this, the number of single-use plastics produced in 2021 rose to record heights at 139 million metric tons. That’s six million metric tons more than in 2019, according to the Australia-based Minderoo Foundation’s second-ever Plastic Waste Maker’s Index.
“More plastic, more waste and more pollution,” Minderoo Foundation Chairman Dr. Andrew Forrest said in a statement announcing the report’s findings. “They’re shocking findings, but they’re the results of this second edition of the Plastic Waste Makers Index. For the petrochemical industry to argue otherwise is greenwashing of the highest order. We need a fundamentally different approach, that turns the tap off on new plastic production.”
Since the Minderoo Foundation released its first index in 2019, almost 2.2 pounds more plastic has been generated for every person on Earth, as CNN reported. The report emphasized that the vast majority of that plastic came from fossil fuel based “virgin” materials rather than recycled plastics. “Virgin” plastics were responsible for 15 times more of the increase between the two reports than recycled items.
In its second report, the Minderoo Foundation continued to point out that the plastic pollution crisis is an important component of the climate crisis. If the single-use plastic lifecycle were a country, it would have emitted the same amount of carbon-dioxide equivalent as the UK in 2021, at 460 million metric tons.
“The waste crisis is deepening and industry’s transition away from fossil fuel dependency has barely progressed – which has significant consequences for climate and net zero ambitions,” the report authors wrote.
In its first Plastic Waste Makers Index, the foundation traced the top 20 petrochemical companies that make new plastics from new fossil fuel material and calculated that they were responsible for more than 50 percent of global single-use plastic waste. In the new report, the list of companies was largely the same, with ExxonMobil in the lead and China’s Sinopec in second place. The two new additions to the list in the new report were Russia’s SIBUR and China’s Rongsheng Group in 16th and 17th place respectively.
In response to the report, Sinopec told Reuters that it was the first Chinese company to join the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and was in the process of designing biodegradable plastics. However, the report authors noted that they had previously considered whether any of the companies were making real efforts to move from a linear model of production based on new fossil fuel materials towards a more circular, recycling-based approach and determined that the companies “paid only lip service to circularity.”
Index co-author Dominic Charles told SBS that it was “concerning that a greater number of the top 50 polymer producers have not achieved higher circularity scores.”
While the report found that recycling could play an important role in reducing the carbon footprint of plastics — mechanical recycling could cut emissions by 50 percent compared with generating new plastics from fossil fuels — that is currently not happening. Plastic beverage bottles are the most commonly recycled plastics, and yet only 13 percent of these bottles are made from recycled materials.
The report comes amidst increasing efforts to regulate single-use plastics, including an international treaty being developed through the UN Environment Assembly. However, these efforts are also not currently doing enough to stem the plastic tide.
The report offers several recommendations for what policy makers, polymer producers, investors and other companies in the plastics supply chain could do to change that, focusing on the three themes of reducing the production of plastics from fossil fuels, increasing the plastic products designed to be circular and reducing plastic pollution into the environment.
Forrest in particular called for a “polymer premium” on every new kilogram of plastic generated from fossil fuels. Other recommendations included a 20 percent recycled content target for single-use plastics by 2030 and a fund to help countries especially inundated with plastic waste manage its cleanup and processing.
“While our research provides the evidence needed by legislators to develop meaningful industry regulation on a global scale, it should also guide corporations on the need for a greater level of transparency on their plastics circularity ambitions and actions,” Charles told SBS.
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