The people have spoken, and the people are pretty clear: They’d like to see less plastic in the world, from product packaging to food storage containers to components of toys. Yet, the oil industry is investing heavily in the development of new plastic production facilities, in a move that will increase global plastic production 40 percent over the next decade. What gives?
Because most plastics are produced with petroleum byproducts, the plastic business is a great way for companies like Exxon to diversify their production. Plastics manufacturing companies, meanwhile, can cut costs and continue to supply cheap plastic by owning fossil fuel companies — quite the symbiotic relationship.
And there’s another problem: Prices for raw petroleum products are falling, thanks to the explosion of the shale gas industry in the United States. Making more fossil fuels available at extremely low prices creates a pressure to use them, which is exactly what the industry wants. Over the years, these companies have replaced perfectly functional renewable products with plastics, locking in a market for a product we didn’t need in the first place.
At the same time that many regions are working to crack down on plastic usage with efforts like plastic bag bans, requirements for biodegradable takeout containers and mandates for plastic reduction at government agencies, the industry is pumping out more and more plastic.
That’s not just bad at the end of plastic’s lifecycle, when it gets tossed in a landfill or sent to a recycling facility in an attempt to get another round of use at it. It’s also bad at every step of the supply chain, where pollution ranges from the oil field to the factory to the fossil fuels used to transport plastics to their end destinations.
In essence, the oil industry wants to profit from the glut of cheap fuel it’s created, so it’s attempting to generate a market for more plastics — even though we already produce more plastic every year than the combined weight of humanity on Earth.
Scientists are already warning that our plastic production and usage is unsustainable, so what kind of environmental crisis will result from ramping up production even more?
We already know that it can take hundreds of years for plastics to break down, so the introduction of innovative new plastics is not exactly heartening news. When plastics do break down, that doesn’t resolve the problem. In the ocean — where a lot of plastic ends up — plastic products turn into small pieces of material that animals can ingest, and as the material degrades even further, it releases harmful chemical compounds.
The plastics industry knows this is a problem, but while they greenwash their annual reports, they’re still pumping out plastic at a steadily increasing rate, and fighting regulatory attempts aimed at cutting down on waste generation. For them, encouraging sustainability is counter to their business model. After all, doing so would be an admission that plastics are dangerously unhealthy, and we should invest in eliminating them.
But some companies are exploring biodegradable alternatives. Numerous researchers are on the case, using a variety of products as feedstock for plastics that will break down in the right conditions. That said, it’s important to note that they won’t break down anywhere — just try composting a cup made from corn plastic at home. The growth of such products indicates that it’s possible to move away from plastic, and consumers are clearly interested in these alternatives.
So what can you do about our collective reliance on plastic? In addition to reducing plastic products you bring into your own home, you can reach out to local officials to ask them about ordinances to reduce or eliminate the uses of some plastics in your community. At work, you can push for biodegradeable and renewable alternatives to plastics. You can also encourage your federal elected officials to implement better regulations on the oil and gas industry, as well as more environmental protections to limit the exploitation of natural resources.
In addition to preserving nature for future generations, you’ll help offset the availability of cheap oil and gas, pushing companies to rethink their business models.