A report released by the Minderoo Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in Australia, highlights the scale of the plastic waste crisis. Called the “Plastic Waste Makers Index,” the report claims that 20 companies supported by a small group of financial backers are responsible for producing more than 50 percent of single-use plastic that ends up as waste worldwide, though the plastics industry says the report is misleading.
The 86-page report says that while 100 companies are behind 90 percent of global single-use plastic production, about 20 polymer producers accounted for more than half of all single-use plastic waste generated globally in 2019. Exxon Mobil and the Dow Chemical Co. topped the list, while China-based chemical company Sinopec followed. Together, the report says these companies contributed 16 percent of single-use plastic waste.
According to a news release from the foundation, close to 60 percent of the commercial finance funding single-use production comes from 20 global banks, including Barclays, HSBC and Bank of America. A total of $30 billion in loans have gone to the sector since 2011.
“The plastification of our oceans and the warming of our planet are amongst the greatest threats humanity and nature have ever confronted,” says Andrew Forrest, chairman and co-founder of the Minderoo Foundation. “Global efforts will not be enough to reverse this crisis unless the government, business and financial leaders act in our children’s and grandchildren’s interests.”
The foundation’s report found that more than 130 million metric tons of single-use plastic ended up as waste in 2019. About 19 percent of this waste, about 25 million metric tons, were littered.
A 30 percent increase is projected in global throwaway plastic production over the next five years. The foundation says this production growth will lead to an extra 3 trillion items of plastic waste by 2025.
As a result of the findings, the foundation calls for regulations requiring petrochemical companies to disclose their plastic waste footprint and commit to transitioning away from fossil fuels toward circular models of plastic production. It also calls for banks and investors to shift capital, investments and finance away from companies producing new fossil-fuel-based virgin plastic production to companies using recycled plastic feedstocks.
However, the report, which was released May 18, already has drawn opposition from other plastics groups. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) called the report misleading, saying itundermined the role plastics play in lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
“America’s plastic makers are deeply committed to ending plastic waste and to winning the fight against climate change,” says Joshua Baca, ACC vice president of plastics. “The Minderoo Foundation’s report misconstrues the relationship between plastics and our carbon footprint. Some of the most comprehensive studies to date have found that replacing plastics with other materials would drive up waste and carbon impacts.”
An analysis from environmental firm Trucost that was sponsored by the ACC found that replacing plastic in consumer packaging and products with common alternatives would increase environmental costs nearly four times. According to a news release from the ACC, a separate study found that switching from plastic packaging to other alternatives would increase the amount of packaging generated annually in the U.S. by 55 million tons and greenhouse gas emissions by 130 percent. That study also was funded by the ACC.
The ACC claims that the Minderoo report leaves out plastic’s role in enabling innovations needed for sustainable infrastructure like solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and charging stations.
“The world needs plastic to live more sustainably, and America’s plastic makers are leading the development of solutions to end plastic waste,” Baca says. “We’re innovating and investing in efforts to create a more circular economy, where used plastics are systematically remanufactured to make new plastics and other products.”“This biased study, funded by the iron ore industry, simply does not pass the smell test,” The Plastics Industry Association adds in a separate news release. “Objective study after objective study has made clear that plastic has lower greenhouse gas emissions when compared to alternative materials across a wide variety of applications. Suggesting the banning or elimination of specific products or applications without understanding the full lifecycle impact of the alternatives to plastic is irresponsible and could have unintended adverse environmental consequences, such as higher greenhouse gas emissions and increased energy and water use.”