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Plastic pollution traced to source

Revealed: the businesses and banks behind the global plastic waste crisis
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Plastic pollution traced to source

New analysis reveals the source and true scale of the global plastic waste crisis.

It shows just 20  companies – supported by a small group of financial backers – are responsible for producing over 50% of ‘throwaway’ single-use plastic that ends up as waste worldwide.

Published by Minderoo Foundation, the ‘Plastic  Waste-Makers Index’ has been developed with partners including Wood Mackenzie and, among others, experts from the London School of Economics and Stockholm Environment Institute.

‘Tracing the root causes of the plastic waste crisis empowers us to help solve it. The trajectories of the climate crisis and the plastic waste crisis are strikingly similar and increasingly intertwined. As awareness of the toll of plastic pollution has grown, the petrochemical industry has told us it’s our own fault and has directed attention toward behavior change from end-users of these products, rather than addressing the problem at its source.’

Former US Vice President

20 companies behind half the waste

Made almost exclusively from fossil fuels, single-use plastics are the most commonly discarded type of plastic too frequently becoming pollution.

Environmental campaigners have previously placed the blame for plastic waste at the feet of packaged goods brands such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola.

But now a small group of petrochemical companies who manufacture ‘polymers’ – the building block of plastics – is revealed as the source of the crisis.

20 companies are the source of half of all single-use plastic thrown away globally.

ExxonMobil tops the list –  contributing 5.9 million tonnes to global plastic waste – closely followed by US chemicals company Dow and China’s Sinopec.

100 companies are behind 90% of global single-use plastic production.

‘It’s no surprise that the vast bulk of plastic waste is a direct result of the petrochemical industry, and this report confirms the sheer volume they are responsible for.

‘Crucially though, while they’ve been pumping out more than half of the world’s plastic, they have had zero accountability. Unless strict requirements force these companies to deal with the waste they create, the plastic crisis is only going to get worse. 

‘Today we strongly urge all governments around the world to take real action, and use legislation to ensure these companies have an extended producer responsibility for the plastic they produce and a cap on production. Without this they will never be incentivised to act, and the planet will continue to suffer.’

A Plastic Planet co-founder

Banks funding single-use plastics

Close to 60% of the commercial finance funding single-use production comes from just 20 global banks.

A  total of $30 billion of loans from these institutions – including Barclays, HSBC and Bank of America  among others – has gone to the sector since 2011.  

20 asset managers – led by US companies Vanguard Group, BlackRock and Capital Group – hold over  $300 billion worth of shares in the parent companies of single-use plastic polymer producers. Of this,  US$10 billion is directly linked to single-use polymer production.

Minderoo Foundation, the author of the report, is calling for petrochemicals companies to be required to disclose their ‘plastic waste footprint’ and commit to  transitioning away from fossil fuels towards circular models of plastic production.

The foundation wants to see banks and investors shift capital, investments and finance away from companies producing new fossil fuel-based virgin plastic production, to companies using recycled plastic feedstocks.

‘The plastification of our oceans and the warming of our planet are amongst the greatest threats humanity and nature have ever confronted. Global efforts will not be enough to reverse this crisis unless government, business and financial  leaders act in our children’s and grandchildren’s interests.

‘This means: stop making new plastic and start using recycled plastic waste, it means re-allocate capital from  virgin producers to those using recycled materials, and importantly, it means redesign plastic so it does no harm  and is compostable, so like every other element, it returns to its original molecules, not nano-plastics. And we must  act now. Because while we bicker, the oceans are getting trashed with plastic and the environment is getting destroyed by global warming.’

Chairman and co-founder, Minderoo  Foundation

A growing plastics crisis

The report also lays bare the scale of inaction by plastic producers and how they are compounding the existing throwaway plastic waste crisis.

A 30% increase in global throwaway plastic production is projected over the next five years.

This growth in production will lead to an extra three trillion items of throwaway plastic waste by 2025 alone.

Recycled plastic or feedstocks account for no more than 2% of global single-use plastic production, meaning  98% of these plastics are produced from fossil fuels.
Plastic producers score woefully in a best practice assessment of the move to circular based forms of production necessary in addressing the crisis.  

The global economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic pushed down the price of oil, making  fossil fuel based single-use plastics even more financially attractive.

‘Our reliance on oil and gas is not only fuelling climate change, but as the primary material used in the production of throwaway plastics also devastating our oceans.

‘It is critically important  petrochemical companies move towards circular economy-based alternatives if we are going to successfully  tackle these interlinked crises. The benefits on offer are transformative and hugely beneficial not only for our  environment and ecosystems, but also the communities living with the realities of plastic pollution.’

Professor of Climate Change Economics and Policy at the Smith School, University of Oxford and former director, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics

Throwaway plastics by country

More than 130 million metric tonnes of single-use plastic ended-up as waste in 2019 – almost all of which is burned,  buried in landfill or discarded directly into the environment.

19% of this waste – some 25 million metric tonnes –  became pollution, dumped in oceans or on land. This is equivalent to the weight of over 23,000 blue whales.

The analysis shows which countries are the biggest contributors to the throwaway plastics crisis.

Australia and the United States respectively produce the greatest amounts of single-use plastic waste per head of population, at more than 50kg per person per year.

In comparison, the average person in China – the largest producer of single-use  plastic by volume – produces 18kg of single-use plastic waste per year; in India that figure is as low as 4kg per  year.

‘This is the first time the financial and material flows of single-use plastic production have been mapped globally and traced back to their source. Revealing the sheer scale of the global crisis we have on our hands, it’s critical we break the pattern of inaction. You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

‘Building on the analysis published today, this is why it is so important the small group of companies and banks that dominate global production of throwaway plastics begin to disclose their own data.’

Senior Research Fellow, Stockholm Environment  Institute

The Plastic Waste-Makers Index is a project of Minderoo Foundation’s No Plastic Waste initiative, which aims to create a world without plastic pollution – a truly circular plastics economy, where fossil fuels are no longer used to produce plastics.

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