Despite rising consumer awareness, corporate attention, and regulation, an additional 6 million metric tons (MMT) of waste was generated in 2021 compared to 2019 — still almost entirely made from fossil fuel-based “virgin” feedstocks.
Meanwhile, the top 20 list of petrochemical companies producing virgin polymers bound for single-use plastic remains effectively unchanged. While global capacity to produce these polymers is expected grow slower than the historical rate (2.7 per cent CAGR in 2021-27 vs 3.9 per cent in 2005-20), this still equates to an additional 60 MMT by 2027, of which we expect 17 MMT to be bound for single-use plastics.
The top 20 list of petrochemical companies producing virgin polymers bound for single-use plastic remains effectively unchanged since 2019.
Cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions from single-use plastics in 2021 were equivalent to the total emissions of the United Kingdom (460 million tonnes CO2e).
Most emissions are produced by the oil and gas and petrochemical industries in the “upstream” part of the lifecycle. Mechanical recycling reduces cradle-to-grave emissions by at least 30 to 40 per cent compared to producing polymers from fossil fuels by avoiding upstream emissions. While the emissions reduction opportunities from recycling are significant, they can only be part of the solution towards a net zero plastics economy.
GHG emissions are proportionally higher for companies using coal-to-olefins technologies and those producing more complex polymers (PS, PET).
Only strong regulatory intervention can solve what amounts to market failure.
From 2019-21, growth in single-use plastics made from virgin polymers was 15 times that from recycled feedstocks. Petrochemical companies are (naturally) only expanding into recycling in markets where the economic conditions are (somewhat) more favourable. These are markets where policies are more progressive and demand for recycled plastics is stronger. However, across all polymers and technologies, only 3 MMT of additional on par recycling capacity is expected to be brought online by 2027 (0.7 MMT by the petrochemical industry).
From 2019-21, an additional 6 MMT of single-use plastics were produced.
In addition to these commitments, Far Eastern New Century (FENC) and Indorama Ventures are also now producing on par recycled polymers at scale.
A further eight companies have recently set ambitious 2030 recycled polymer targets of at least 20 per cent of production. Compared to the first edition of the Index, we see signs that the industry in general is taking circularity more seriously, but this will only amount to “greenwashing” if words are not backed up by action and investment.
In some cases, the frequency of public claims about circularity is at odds with the overall result — investors should be on the alert for greenwashing.
More plastic, more waste and more pollution.
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. We need a “polymer premium” on every kilogram of plastic polymer made from fossil fuel.”
– DR ANDREW FORREST AO, CHAIRMAN, MINDEROO FOUNDATION
Three big interventions would deliver a step change in single-use plastic waste and associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Include Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions from plastic polymers in net zero climate targets and strategies.
Actively engage with investees (or use voting rights) to stop the building of new fossil fuel-based polymer facilities, or divest.
Put a levy on fossil-fuel polymer production and/or consumption to generate funds for scaling plastics collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure.
Set clear corporate targets to reduce virgin plastic consumption — e.g., through EMF/UN’s Global Commitment — and lend public support to policy measures with this objective.
Set a minimum 20 per cent target by 2030 for recycled vs fossil fuel feedstock in polymer production.
Demand clear, ambitious and time-bound targets for recycled vs fossil fuel feedstock in polymer production from every producer.
Set target on overall plastic material circularity — i.e., combined mass of re-used, recycled, and sustainable plastics put on the market — including 20 per cent minimum recycled content standards for all single-use plastics by 2030.
Create certainty for greater investment in recycling by entering into long-term forward contracts for recycled plastics at fixed and fair prices.
Invest in or partner with plastic waste collection, sorting and recycling systems and capacities, with a focus on high-leakage countries.
Lend public support for policies that will create economic conditions for more investment in plastics collection, sorting and recycling (e.g., through the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty).
Under the global plastics treaty, create a fund to support waste management systems in countries most impacted by plastic pollution (following the example of COP27’s Loss and Damage Fund).
Harmonise design standards for safe plastics use (including chemical additives), disposal and recyclability.