While the fight against single-use plastics waste continues, a new study reveals that it is still far from won.
The report, released Feb. 6, is the second edition of the Plastic Waste Makers Index, a project of the Minderoo Foundation's plastics initiative. The first index, published in May 2021, covered 2019 and identified for the first time the companies at the start of the plastics supply chain that are responsible for producing the polymers bound for single-use plastics — almost all fossil fuel-based.
More than half of the world's single-use plastics waste was found to be directly attributable to just 20 petrochemical companies.
The second edition contains data up to the end of 2021. The findings are, as the report states, "deeply troubling." Rather than generating less single-use plastics waste, the world generated more: 6 million metric tons more than in 2019, equivalent to roughly 1 kilogram more of mainly fossil fuel-based plastics packaging waste for every human on the planet.
The report provides a useful benchmark for plastics and climate-related research and shareholder engagement efforts, said Casey Clark, president and chief investment officer of Rockefeller Asset Management.
"Investors, regulatory bodies and civil society have emphasized the need to reduce plastic consumption, increase waste management efforts, and transition to 'circular' modes of living. Even with that backdrop, the global intake of raw virgin materials and single-use plastics continues to rise," Clark said.
The Plastic Waste Makers in the new report are essentially the same as those in the earlier report. Compared with 2019, however, the petrochemical industry would seem to have become more aware that it needs to transition to circular models of plastics production.
The new 2023 index contains new estimates of life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from single-use plastics. According to the report, these figures show that single-use plastics contribute to a climate crisis.
Life cycle greenhouse gas (Scope 1, 2 and 3) emissions from single-use plastics in 2021 were equivalent to the total emissions of the United Kingdom — 450 million tonnes CO₂e.
The report also underscores the need for higher recycling rates. According to the index, using mechanically recycled plastics to create new materials could displace at least half the GHG emissions compared with conventional polymers.
"Recycling has the potential — along with reduce and reuse — to play an important role in solving both the waste and climate crises, but its contribution is currently negligible," the authors write. In fact, the report found that from 2019 to 2021, growth in single-use plastics made from fossil fuels was 15 times that of recycled plastics.
PWMI 2023 gives a big shoutout to what it sees as two outliers within the petrochemical industry: Taiwan's Far Eastern New Century and Thailand's Indorama Ventures. Both are firmly committed to recycling and producing recycled polymers at scale, and together these two alone represent 20 percent of the global PET bottle-to-bottle recycling capacity. This gives some indication of the clout petrochemical companies can yield in the transition toward a circular plastics economy.