New Report Throws Cold Water on Big Oil’s Plastic Plan

Graphic: Carbon Tracker    Source: EPA, CREA, WHO, UNEP, CT estimates, Breaking the Plastic Wave

By Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

Last month, we reported on the plan of American companies to foist an increasing amount of plastic goods and garbage on African countries. These plastics represent the “thin reed upon which the [oil] industry is placing all its hopes.” But now, as David Roberts reported for Vox, a new report, “The Future’s Not In Plastics” by Carbon Tracker, “throws a big bucket of cold water on these hopes.” According to the report, despite the fact that oil and petrochemical companies are “betting their future growth on demand for plastics,” plastic demand is “likely to peak,” as they face increased regulation and public criticism.

Why This Matters: As Kingsmill Bond, energy strategist as Carbon Tracker, told The Guardian, “It is simply delusional for the plastics industry to imagine that it can double its carbon emissions at the same time as the rest of the world is trying to cut them to zero.”  And as the Carbon Tracker report predicted, the “mounting pressure to curtail the use of plastics” through regulation suggests that Big Oil will “lose its primary growth driver, making it more likely oil demand peaked as early as 2019.”

The Problems with Plastic

Plastics represent, according to Carbon Tracker, a “massive untaxed externality upon society.” This externality impacts global warming, ocean pollution, and public health. Now is the time to act on these issues; as Lidia Creech reported for Resource, a recent study demonstrated that without action, by 2040 the level of plastic pollution in our oceans could triple.

And, although some have argued that plastic is critical in fields like healthcare, as the report noted, “the amount of plastic used in PPE equipment is very low and not sufficient to outweigh falling plastic demand elsewhere.”

As Bond told The Guardian, “Remove the plastic pillar holding up the future of the oil industry, and the whole narrative of rising oil demand collapses.”  Unfortunately, the petrochemical industry is betting that the demand for virgin plastics use will increase by a quarter at a cost of at least $400 billion in the next 5 years, risking huge losses for investors.

Disrupting the Plastics Industry

Thankfully, there are a number of ways to “curtail demand for virgin plastics” that Carbon Tracker outlines in its reports. The report details the three main solutions for this disruption: first, reducing demand by implementing “better design and regulation,” substituting plastic goods with other products, and “massively increas[ing]” recycling.

While a recent Pew Charitable Trusts report noted there is “no single solution” on issues like ocean plastic pollution, if a number of steps are taken hand-in-hand, including both pre-consumer and post-consumer solutions, important strides can be made.

To Go Deeper: Read the report by the Pew Charitable Trusts on how we can “break the plastic wave,” as well as Carbon Tracker’s report on the “shaky” new plan of Big Oil to invest in plastics.

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