How the plastics industry turned the epidemic to its advantage | plastic
TThere are only two reasons for the plastics industry to change, as a polymer scientist once told me: war or legislation. Companies along the plastics value chain have faced a number of environmental and health crises, from toxic scandals to marine plastic waste and the climate emergency. Each of these crises led to new laws and regulations, despite corporate efforts to undermine them.
In the two years leading up to the pandemic, the public backlash against plastics was a major concern for industry leaders. As one company executive noted during an industry event in early 2019: “We need to get the image of plastic in the oceans out of the public mind. Otherwise, we may lose our social license to operate.” Of course, the pandemic has not taken the image of plastic in the oceans out of the public’s mind. However, it has highlighted in a very real and urgent way the importance of many plastic products for health care and hygiene. At the virtual World Petrochemical Conference in April 2020, an industry analyst commented on this unexpected turn: “Ironically, sustainability, an issue that had dominated the conversation until just a few weeks ago, appears to be fading into the background, at least for a moment. Polyethylene is gaining some public support because it plays a prominent role in combating the greatest health risks to our planet in recent history.”
This temporary relief from public anti-plastic sentiment opened the door for the industry to fight back against the ban on single-use plastics. In July last year, the European Commission rejected an industry request to delay an EU directive on single-use plastics. However, multi-use plastic bans and deposit-return plans have been reversed or postponed in countries around the world, across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
During the pandemic, plastic has been returned to its original paradoxical status as a miracle and a danger to society. In terms of industry, this was enough: it had regained its social license to operate. By the end of 2020, industry leaders had fully embraced the new epidemiological narrative about the essential role of plastics in society, and many expressed optimism about their future growth. At the virtual World Petrochemical Conference in March 2021, industry analysts identified four major “Covid demand drivers”: food packaging, bag ban delays, online shopping, and hygiene and medical.
As one petrochemical industry executive was excited: “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how important all of our products are to everyone in society around the world. We have seen record sales and record volumes of our products throughout the pandemic… In the long term we can continue to see That kind of growth, and we’re going to see it accelerate as economies around the world reopen. It’s all really driven by the world’s growing global middle class, and it’s going to increase demand for the products we produce. Covid-19 hasn’t changed our long-term view on fundamentals” .
Hearing these glowing industry reports about the growth of single-use plastics, I couldn’t help but feel guilty about the plastics entering my home in the UK during the pandemic. Many environmental activists and researchers have pointed out that one of the industry’s main tactics is to blame the consumer for plastic waste, which distracts from corporate responsibility. The plastic crisis is a systemic problem, however, and most people are trapped in supply chains and infrastructure, simply unable to opt out of plastic consumption.
According to a recent study published in the journal science progressThe United Kingdom is second only to the United States in terms of the amount of plastic waste generated per capita, at 99 kg and 105 kg per capita annually, respectively. One of the main problems is supermarkets with over-packed food. By contrast, global average plastic consumption is 45 kilograms per capita per year, and 4 kilograms per capita per year in India. Looking at the consequences of one’s actions, from a privileged point of view, multiply and intensify across the planet, invites a kind of vertigo.
While corporate voluntary commitments to end plastic waste are pouring in, the plastics crisis has continued to fester. Some of the harsher reports have emerged during the pandemic, such as Changing Markets’ Talking Trash, which concluded that “the health crisis of Covid-19 has shown, once again, that Big Plastic is always ready and willing to share a crisis in its favour, push to undermine environmental legislation or No restrictions on their products… [T]The plastics industry does not care about people’s interests; Instead, it’s making cold calculations to continue business as usual.” The Talking Trash report focused on insufficient voluntary commitments by major plastic polluters in the consumer goods and beverage industries, and companies’ “evidence” to undermine plastics legislation, particularly deposit-return schemes and one-time plastic bans. one.
One important lever for changing the plastics industry has gained momentum during the pandemic: the dawning realization by many investors and policymakers that green-to-net-zero recovery paths will need to phase out fossil fuels entirely, including virgin (brand new) plastics. In September 2020, think tank Carbon Tracker warned plastics investors about the risks of holding assets stuck in the transition away from fossil fuels. Its researchers have argued that plastic is the last pillar of oil demand growth, but that this pillar will be removed very soon by increased regulatory and recycling pressures, which have been accelerated by green payback packages.
The need to reduce plastics’ dependence on fossil fuels has also been featured in a number of policy proposals, which aligns with the momentum to respond to the climate emergency with a post-pandemic green recovery. The U.S. Plastic Freedom bill re-emerged in early 2021 under the Biden presidency, incorporating calls from environmental activists and frontline communities to halt petrochemical projects and to hold companies accountable for waste and emissions throughout the life cycle of plastic. Plastic sustainability, which includes zero-emissions targets, is a prominent part of the European Green Deal. Moreover, limiting virgin plastic production is a central topic (in case of contention) for discussions about the scope of a new United Nations treaty on plastics, amid growing recognition from many governments, organizations and researchers that the problem of plastic pollution extends across the life cycle of plastics, from raw material extraction to manufacturing, consumption, waste and pollution.
If there is any insight to be gained from looking at the ways companies are responding to the plastics crisis, which has been amplified during the pandemic, it is the power of the legislation. Binding laws and regulations provide less wiggle room than voluntary obligations, especially when it comes to bans. The plastics industry cares more about the threat of the European Single-Use Plastics Directive, which is binding legislation, than Ellen MacArthur’s New Global Plastics Economy Commitment, which is based on commitments to a voluntary circular economy. A complete ban of certain plastic products, on the grounds of environmental protection or public health, effectively drives these products out of the market.
The pandemic has made clear that we need binding legislation and regulations to tackle the plastics crisis, but we also need another lever for change. We need to keep questioning the prevailing assumption that there can be continued growth of plastic on a finite planet. If this assumption can be overturned, in line with the growing consensus that the world needs to transition away from fossil fuels, that would be a starting point for meaningful change.
This is an edited excerpt from Unlimited Plastic: How companies are fueling the environmental crisis and what we can do about it By Alice Mah, published by Polity Press (£14.99). to support guardian And the observer Request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply