Unsurprisingly, single-use plastics also account for the majority of plastic thrown away the world over: more than 130 million metric tons in 2019 – almost all of which is burned, buried in landfill, or discarded directly into the environment.
The cost of single-use plastic waste is enormous. Of all the plastics, they are the most likely to end up in our ocean, where they account for almost all visible pollution, in the range of five to 13 million metric tons each year.1,2,3 Once there, single-use plastics eventually break down into tiny particles that impact wildlife health – and the ocean’s ability to store carbon.4 Single-use plastics contain chemical additives such as plasticisers that have been found in humans and are linked to a range of reproductive health problems.5 And if growth in single-use plastic production continues at current rates, they could account for five to 10 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.6
Despite these threats, the plastics industry has been allowed to operate with minimal regulation and transparency for decades. Government policies, where they exist, tend to focus on the vast number of companies that sell finished plastic products. Relatively little attention has been paid to the smaller number of businesses at the base of the supply chain that make “polymers” – the building blocks of all plastics – almost exclusively from fossil fuels.
These companies are the source of the single-use plastic crisis: their production of new “virgin” polymers from oil, gas and coal feedstocks perpetuates the take-make-waste dynamic of the plastics economy. The economies of scale for fossil-fuel-based production are undermining transition to a “circular” plastic economy, with negative impacts on waste collection rates, on end-of-life management and on rates of plastic pollution. The focus needs to be on producing recycled polymers from plastic waste, on re-use models and on alternative substitute materials.
Part of the problem is that we can’t manage what we can’t measure. In this report, we identify for the first time the companies that produce from fossil fuels the five primary polymers that generate the vast majority of single-use plastic waste globally (“virgin single-use plastic polymer producers”) – and which investors and banks are funding them. We also assess which companies are making real efforts to create a circular plastics economy, and estimate how virgin polymer production is expected to grow or decline in the future.
In 2019, just 20 polymer producers accounted for more than half of all single-use plastic waste generated globally – and the top 100 accounted for 90 per cent.
ExxonMobil and Dow – both based in the USA – top the list, followed by China-based Sinopec, with these three companies together accounting for 16 per cent of global single-use plastic waste. Of approximately 300 polymer producers operating globally, a small fraction hold the fate of the world’s plastics crisis in their hands: their choice to continue to produce virgin polymers, rather than recycled polymers, will have massive repercussions on how much waste is collected, is managed and leaks into the environment.
Major global investors and banks are enabling the single-use plastics crisis.
Twenty institutional asset managers – led by US companies Vanguard Group, BlackRock and Capital Group – hold over US$300 billion worth of shares in the parent companies of these polymer producers, of which an estimated US$10 billion comes from the production of virgin polymers for single-use plastics. Twenty of the world’s largest banks, including Barclays, HSBC and Bank of America, are estimated to have lent almost US$30 billion for the production of these polymers since 2011.
There has been a collective industry failure to transition away from fossil-fuel-based feedstocks.
The 100 largest polymer producers all continue to rely almost exclusively on “virgin” (fossil-fuel-based) feedstocks. In 2019, production of recycled polymers from plastic waste – a “circular” model – accounted for no more than two per cent of total output. Over 50 of these companies received an “E” grade – the lowest possible – when assessed for circularity, indicating a complete lack of policies, commitments or targets. A further 26 companies, including ExxonMobil and Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corporation, received a “D-” due to their lack of clear targets/timelines.
Planned expansion of virgin polymer production capacity threatens to overwhelm hopes of a circular plastics economy.
In the next five years, global capacity to produce virgin polymers for single-use plastics could grow by over 30 per cent – and by as much as 400 per cent for individual companies. An environmental catastrophe beckons: much of the resulting single-use plastic waste will end up as pollution in developing countries with poor waste management systems. The projected rate of growth in the supply of these virgin polymers is in line with the historical rate of growth in demand for single-use plastics – which will likely keep new, circular models of production and re-use “out of the money” without regulatory stimulus.
Single-use plastic waste is an entrenched geopolitical problem.
Transitioning away from the take-make-waste model of single-use plastics will take more than corporate leadership and “enlightened” capital markets; it will require immense political will. This is underscored by the high degree of state ownership in these polymer producers – an estimated 30 per cent of the sector, by value, is state-owned, with Saudi Arabia, China, and the United Arab Emirates the top three. In addition, it will likely require concerted action on the international political stage to resolve deep-rooted regional imbalances and inequities. High income countries are typically supplying low and lower-middle income countries with significant volumes of polymer; and while this latter group of countries generates far less single-use plastic waste per person, the reverse is true in terms of mismanaged waste and plastic pollution.
This report has major implications for the main stakeholders in the single-use plastics crisis:
Polymer producers represent an extraordinary leverage opportunity in the fight against plastic pollution, as the “gatekeepers” of plastic production – particularly because they are relatively few in number. As policymakers and investors recognise this fact, the disruptions and risks facing these companies will only grow. Polymer producers wishing to maintain a competitive advantage should:
Institutional asset managers and global banks are providing billions of dollars to companies that produce polymers from fossil fuels – as much as 100 times more than they provide to companies trying to shift to a circular economy. This asymmetry urgently needs to be reversed. Investors and banks should:
Solving the single-use plastic problem will take more than the actions of progressive polymer producers or the influence of capital markets. It will also require policymakers to display great political will and practical action. Policymakers should:
While not the focus of the analyses in this report, other companies in the single-use plastics supply chain share responsibility for ensuring that the promise of a circular plastic economy becomes a reality. Converters of plastic polymers, packaged goods brands, and retailers should: