The disposable plastic that contains our take-away food and encases our dry cleaning is widely recognized as one of the greatest environmental hazards in the world. It pollutes from fossil fuel extraction as it is made and pollutes again as soon as it is used. Thrown away, it can clog waterways and suffocate or sometimes burn animals, releasing dangerous fumes into the air.
A detailed report released on Tuesday sheds new light on who makes all of this single-use plastic, most recently 130 million tons a year, and who makes money from it. A surprisingly small group of huge manufacturers and investors is at the heart of global industry.
The report comes from researchers led by Minderoo, an Australia-based non-profit advocating cleaner oceans, as well as scientists from Oxford University and the Stockholm Environment Institute. It was audited by KPMG, the auditing company.
Here are five takeaways:
So who makes all of this plastic?
For years, environmentalists have been pressuring consumers to reduce their plastic usage and shaming consumer companies to use less plastic in their packaging.
However, this report pulls back another layer by showing who makes polymers, the petrochemicals that are the building blocks of single-use plastics.
According to the report, half of the world’s single-use plastic is produced by 20 large companies. Two US companies, Exxon Mobil and Dow, lead the package, followed by Sinopec, a Chinese petrochemical giant, and Indorama Ventures, based in Bangkok.
Single-use plastic has been very good business and is likely to continue to do so. Production capacity is expected to grow by 30 percent in the next five years alone.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents the plastics industry, called the report “misleading” and said it did not recognize industry research suggesting that replacing plastic packaging with other materials could increase greenhouse gas emissions. The group also found that the Minderoo Foundation is funded by its founder’s involvement in a company that mines iron ore. Mining is often criticized for its environmental impact.
The Association of the Plastics Industry said the Minderoo report failed to take into account the positive aspects of plastic, such as its role in extending the life of food and the industry’s global investments in improving plastic waste collection.
Who invests in its production?
Some of the most recognizable names in finance, including companies that control mutual funds and retirement accounts, including Vanguard and BlackRock, according to the analysis. Production is funded by the world’s largest banks, including Barclays and JPMorgan Chase.
Governments are also big stakeholders in this industry. About 40 percent of the largest single-use plastics manufacturers are partially owned by governments, including China and Saudi Arabia.
Who is using it?
There are big differences between richer and poorer nations.
The average American uses and throws away 110 pounds, or roughly 50 kilograms of single-use plastic, each year. Currently, only Australians match the American waste volumes.
The average Chinese only uses about a third as much as an American. According to the Minderoo report, the average Indian consumes less than a twelfth.
What is being done
In a statement, Exxon Mobil said it “shares society’s concerns about plastic waste and agrees it needs to be addressed,” adding that the company is increasing recycling effectiveness and supporting improvements in the recovery of plastic waste.
Many long-proposed solutions to the plastics problem do not work.
Only about 8 percent of plastic is recycled in the US, and efforts to convince consumers to use less plastic have not caught on.
State and local governments have successfully banned certain items such as plastic bags, foam cups, and drinking straws. However, efforts to limit the production of single-use plastics have been limited.
A major challenge is that the economy prefers more plastic production. It’s far cheaper to make a soda bottle from newly made plastic than from recycled plastic.
This has led the European Union to issue a directive calling on consumer brands to use at least 30 percent recycled content in plastic bottles by 2025. However, it remains to be seen whether other governments will take steps to mandate a switch to a so-called circular economy, which will result in less plastic production.
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