The plastics issue we seem to ignore

Giant petrochemical companies have announced a wealthy alliance to tackle plastic pollution. But there's little talk of scaling back production to help the environment.

The day my close childhood friend turned 2 years old, The New York Times published an in-depth article entitled "The Promise and Perils of Petrochemicals."

Nature and Environment | 14.11.2018

It offered an insight into the complexities and "alchemy" of synthetics manufacture, and claimed that products such as plastics are often created more to meet the needs of industry than those of the consumer. In the same breath, it warned that large-scale production could, in years to come, become an environmental hazard.

That was in 1977. Fast forward to the here and now, and that prophecy is graphically borne out in abundant images from across the world of clogged waterways, dead wildlife and trash heaped as far, high and wide as the eye can see. 

Even the author of the decades-old caution might have struggled to imagine how, in the intervening 40 plus years, global and globalized society would go from an annual production of some 50 million tons — equivalent in weight to around 150 Empire State Buildings — to 335 million tons in 2016, as figures from Statista show.

Infografik Plastik Produktion seit 1950 DE

Yet it has. And despite the fact that of the overall 8.3 billion tons of plastic we've churned out to date, 91 percent has not been recycled. According to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, we're on track to quadruple our total output by 2050.

Given that plastics, left to their own devices and exposed to even the very worst extreme weather, can take many hundreds of years to break down, environmentalists are calling for a solution that goes beyond cleanups and bans on selected single-use items

Nature and Environment | 22.12.2018

Petrochemical companies to the fore?

In the first weeks of this year, the newly-minted Alliance to End Plastic Waste ventured a proposal it says could help. It aims to remove plastic from the environment with a five-year, €1.32 billion ($1.5 billion) plan that focuses on waste management, recycling infrastructures, innovation, education and cleanup.

At the alliance's launch event in London, the group of almost 30 member companies, which includes some of the world's largest petrochemical multinationals — BASF, Dow Chemical and Exxon Mobil — as well as consumer goods manufacturers such as Proctor & Gamble, said it would be collaborating with governments and NGOs in an effort to live up to its name.

Infografik Verwendung von Plastik EN

Read moreBioplastics: Great green hope or a false promise?

There was much talk about circular economies, value chains and missed recycling opportunities, but conversely not a word on the option of scaling back on the production of virgin plastics.

And in light of recent International Energy Agency (IEA) findings that say direct CO2 emissions from the petrochemical sector, which is "rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil consumption," are on course to rise 30 percent by 2050, it's that omission that reads like the real missed opportunity. Because a primary use of oil in the petrochemical industry is the manufacture of plastic.

Prevention better than a cure

"We're never going to solve the plastic pollution crisis if we don't stop the expansion of the petrochemicals industry," Delphine Levi Alvares, European coordinator of #breakfreefromplastic, a movement of more than 1,400 organizations pushing for a lasting solution to the plastic pollution crisis, told DW.

"We're talking about companies that are extremely powerful, and most decision-makers are afraid to have this conversation. But we need to."

How much plastic (even the recycled stuff) does the world need?

Levi Alvares regards the Alliance to End Plastic Waste as "just another industry-led initiative" that's putting money in the wrong place.

"The main message we have is definitely around prevention, because we're not going to recycle our way out of plastic pollution. This is really about redesigning our relationships to plastics."

Read moreCan we consume less without wrecking the economy?

Martin Baxter, chief policy adviser of UK-based Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) says that while there are some "very good uses for plastic," it's important to understand the drivers that will allow societies around the globe to de-materialize.

"It is about a hierarchy of action," he told DW. "Do I need to use any of this material, how do I reduce the amounts of material I'm using, can I select materials that can easily be recovered, can I design my products so they can be disaggregated at the end of their life?"

Do vegetables grown with a skin that will be peeled off, really need to be wrapped in plastic?

Plastics as supply-driven products

But for Levi Alvares, the issue is also about making consumers understand to what extent the overuse of plastic is driven by the needs of petrochemical companies.

"As long as we keep extracting fossil fuel, and in a context where producing plastic is more lucrative than producing oil for transport or energy, we're going to use plastics," she said.

According to independent environmental organization Recycling Network, petrochemical companies in the new alliancebegan investing billions in 2014 and plans to do so through2030 in rolling out plastic production capacities. Their €1.32 million solution fund pales in comparison.

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste had yet to comment on any plans to scale back on the production of virgin plastics by the time of publication.

For its part, German chemical giant BASF is "placing strong emphasis on developing innovative packaging solutions that contribute to sustainability," according to Christian Zeintl, of BASF's media relations team.

Zeintl told DW that plastics "help improve and maintain living standards, hygiene and nutrition around the world." Referring to a 2016 plastics and sustainability report by Trucost and the American Chemistry Council , he argued that replacing them with alternatives could raise environmental costs nearly fourfold, and therefore ultimately "do more harm than good." 

"Even as we work aggressively to reduce plastic waste in the environment, we must maintain the critical benefits that plastics bring to people and communities," he told DW. "It is not either/or. With a thoughtful, comprehensive and strategic approach, we can do both."

Read moreHow the UK slowly turned against single-use plastics

Levi Alvares challenges both the mutual inclusion of such a conclusion, as well as the use of material substitution modelling to predict environmental damage, because that, she says, is missing the point.

"The conversation is about how we use our resources and what kinds of products we package," because pollution as a result of plastic manufacture is a long, pervasive and multifaceted journey.

"It starts when they extract the raw materials from the ground," she says, "then you have greenhouse gases emissions, pollution of the waters, and the way it is handled at waste management stage and if it ends up in the environment, it will have an impact on the ecosystem."

It will, it has, and it does. Just as a forward-thinking article gently warned it would. All those years ago.

How oil leaks into everyday life

Cleaning products

Containers for cleaning products are made with oil-based plastics. They are fairly stable, light and cheap. Their contents are also by and large oil based. Surfactants are detergent substances that remove grease and water-based stains and are poisonous for aquatic organisms. People with allergies can break out in rashes and acne from them, too.

How oil leaks into everyday life

'C' is for citrus — and clean

Lemons were long used as cleaning agents before the industrial cleaning revolution. Citric acid has similar scrubbing abilities as vinegar and sodium bicarbonate — without the dangerous side affects. Citrus cleans grills and combats germs on cutting boards. The organic solutions are plentiful, biodegradable, affordable and can come free of packaging.

How oil leaks into everyday life

(Literally) tons of plastic

About 380 million tons of plastics are produced every year worldwide, but only 9 percent of that is recycled, according to a University of California study. The rest is burned, dumped or sent to a landfill. Even recycled material gets quickly trashed again. Researchers estimate that 34 billion tons of plastic will have been produced by 2050.

How oil leaks into everyday life

Straws going au naturel

The flood of plastic won't stop if people don't change their ways. That's what the European Commission has concluded, and it wants to ban sales of plastic cutlery and straws. These are items that are quickly produced, used and thrown away, only to then burden the planet for centuries to come. One major packaging producer, Tetra Pak, has since announced it will change over to making paper straws.

How oil leaks into everyday life

Image cleanup

Germany is Europe's top producer of plastic waste, according to the Federal Environment Agency. Single-family homes purchase items in smaller and individually wrapped quantities. Plastic and styrofoam packaging is generated by online shopping and used for coffee and food on the go. The city of Hanover has taken the lead by introducing a 2-euro ($2.32) deposit scheme for reusable cups.

How oil leaks into everyday life

Desperate fight against plastic buildup

India has a major problem with plastic waste. New Delhi, the capital, has banned single-use plastic, but it is just a drop in the bucket. About 1.5 million Indians earn a living collecting plastic; there is no functioning disposal system. Trash is often burned, which releases poisonous fumes.

How oil leaks into everyday life

Like the good ol' days

Containers can be more ecologically friendly, too. Before the era of plastic, dairy products came in glass. Packaging for drinks can be made out of renewable materials like wood from sustainable sources. Consumer choices can be decisive in the potential reduction of materials based on fossil fuels.


How oil leaks into everyday life

Oily discs

Every CD and DVD contains about 30 grams of crude oil, and 40 billion discs are produced every year around the world, each one made of polycarbonate, aluminum and lacquer. Many of these get thrown away. Germany's recycling rate is about 5 percent, according to the Federal Environment Agency, though the waste gets turned into eyeglass frames, computer monitor housings and vehicle bumpers.

A pump with a heel made of bioplastics (Fraunhofer Institut)

How oil leaks into everyday life

Perched on high with liquid wood

Who says high-end consumers don't care about their ecological footprint? Gucci customers take pumps made from bioplastics in stride. Former researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute took lignin, plant fibers and wax and liquefied the compounds together. Injecting the mixture into molds allows the malleable material to be turned into other products.

How oil leaks into everyday life

Fan and eco-friendly?

This soccer top is made from recycled plastic waste — polyester and polyamide, which are derived from increasingly scarce oil resources. It takes 28 plastic bottles to make one jersey, but that can also be made from natural fibers like cotton, wool, linen, hemp and silk.

How oil leaks into everyday life

Brush well

It's never too early to learn proper oral hygiene — not just how to brush, but also which brush to use. Common toothbrushes are made of polyamide, a product based on mineral oil. Stabilizers, softening agents and dye are in the mix, too.

How oil leaks into everyday life

Natural oral hygiene

Back to basics: Toothbrushes can be made of beech wood with pigs' bristles. Tooth powder from sodium bicarbonate, coconut oil, charcoal, and a mix of turmeric, mint, clove, sage, ginger and healing clay can be just as effective as traditional toothpaste, making use of microorganisms, chalk and fennel oil. Yet much of the packaging is still plastic. Some toothpastes contain small, plastic beads.

How oil leaks into everyday life

A clean night's sleep

In the market for a new mattress? Sleeping habits, orthopedic conditions, weight, allergies and material preference (spring, latex, natural rubber or foam) all play a role. Most mattresses are made from oil-based products. Eco-mattresses contain bioplastics made from sunflower oil and castor oil.

How oil leaks into everyday life

The natural toilet

Interior designers say that the bathroom is the new living room. Many people are after something special: Toilet covers that lower automatically to reduce noise, automatic toilet seat cleaning, integrated music systems. Most bathroom items contain plastic. The eco-toilet is instead made of wood. No plastic bin required.

How oil leaks into everyday life

Oil-free cars: just a fantasy?

Biodiesel from canola oil only works with old, smelly diesel motors. Biogas only works as a small component in fuel. The auto industry is looking for energy alternatives to oil, but we are still a ways off from going completely without black gold. Even batteries need oil in their production. One bright spot: hydrogen. Regardless, the car itself contains a lot of crude oil.