Environment

Twenty companies responsible for more than half of the world's plastic waste

A Chinese man works among a mountain of collected waste plastic bottles at a recycling station in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008.
A Chinese man works among a mountain of collected waste plastic bottles at a recycling station in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008. ASSOCIATED PRESS - Anonymous

Twenty companies are responsible for producing 55 percent of all the single-use plastic waste in the world, new research reveals. Among the guilty are state-owned and multinational corporations, mainly oil and gas producers  - including French oil giant Total. 

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The first ever “Plastic Waste Makers Index”, published by the Australia-based philanthropic Minderoo Foundation, revealed that 20 companies - mainly gas, oil and chemicals giants - produce more than half of the world’s single-use plastic waste.

Moreover, production of single-use plastics is poised to increase with 30% in the next five years, adding to their share of global warming and ocean pollution, researchers said on 18 May with the publication of a list of companies that manufacture and fund throwaway plastic.

Plastic bottles piling up at the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
Plastic bottles piling up at the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. AFP/File

Single-use plastics - the currently high-in-demand face masks - but also general medical equipment, shopping bags, coffee cups and straws - are made from polymers, which use fossil fuels as a base material.

A report accompanying the Index points out that in 2019, 130 million metric tonnes of single-use plastics were found their way to rubbish belts and open nature. 35% was burned, 31% buried in landfills and 19% dumped directly on land or into the ocean.

The index used a range of data sources to track the flow of single-use plastic materials through their life cycle - from polymer form to finished goods to waste - and estimated where they were produced, converted, consumed and disposed of.

ExxonMobil topped the index of polymer producers generating single-use plastic waste, contributing 5.9 million tonnes in 2019, according to the report developed with energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie and researchers at think-tanks and universities.

The US company said in emailed comments it “shares society’s concern about plastic waste and agrees it must be addressed”, requiring a collaborative effort between business, governments, green groups and consumers.

Top 15 worst plastic polluters in the world, according to the Plastic Waste Makers Index, publishen in May 2021 by the Minderoo Foundation
Top 15 worst plastic polluters in the world, according to the Plastic Waste Makers Index, publishen in May 2021 by the Minderoo Foundation © Screengrab Plastic Waste Makers Index

With 34 plastic producing assets, French oil giant Total features as number 14 on the list of the world's worst plastic polluters.

Other big polluters include Chinese petroleum companies Sinopec and PetroChina, Indian/Thai Indorama Ventures and the world's largest oil company, Saudi Aramco.

"Open sewer"

In a foreword of the Index, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said the climate and plastic waste crises are “increasingly intertwined”, with the atmosphere treated like an “open sewer” for planet-heating emissions and the ocean like a “liquid landfill” for plastic waste.

According to "Oil from a critical raw material perspective," a report published in 2019 by the Geological Survey of Finland, which describes the economics of the industry in minute detail, some 10% of global output of oil refineries, 650 million tons per year, is used by the plastics industry.

Canada plans to ban plastic checkout bags and straws along with four other single-use plastic consumer items that are hard to recycle.
Canada plans to ban plastic checkout bags and straws along with four other single-use plastic consumer items that are hard to recycle. AFP/File

"Demand for plastics has outpaced all other bulk materials (such as steel, aluminum or cement), nearly doubling since the start of the millennium," according to the Finnish report. 

And supply will grow accordingly - if not faster. While electricity and transport sectors transition to clean energy, the companies that extract and sell fossil fuels are “scrambling to massively expand” their petrochemicals market," wrote Gore in the Plastic Waste Makers Index.

“Since most plastic is made from oil and gas – especially fracked gas – the production and consumption of plastic are becoming a significant driver of the climate crisis, already producing greenhouse gas emissions on the same scale as a large country,” he added.

(With agencies)

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