In 2019, only 20 polymer producers were responsible for more than half of the planet’s single-use plastic waste, claims the Plastic Waste Makers Index.
The study suggests the largest 100 polymer firms accounted for 90% of all such waste, alleging that US firms ExxonMobil and Dow were the worst offenders, followed by China’s Sinopec – it says together, these businesses are responsible for 16% of all single-use plastic waste generated around the world in 2019.
The report states: “Of approximately 300 polymer producers operating globally, a small fraction hold the fate of the world’s plastics crisis in their hands: their choice to continue to produce virgin polymers, rather than recycled polymers, will have massive repercussions on how much waste is collected, is managed and leaks into the environment.”
However, the research doesn’t just blame the polymer producers – it claims investors and banks are enabling the crisis to continue through the continued provision of financing.
The report alleges twenty institutional asset managers hold more than $300 billion (£211bn) worth of shares in the parent companies of polymer producers, while estimating that twenty leading banks, such as Barclays, HSBC and Bank of America, have lent nearly $30 billion (21.1bn) to help produce these materials since 2011.
While the public focus on recycling seems to have grown over recent years, the report highlights a severe lack of progress in the area – it suggests the 100 largest polymer producers still rely “almost exclusively” on virgin fossil-fuel-based feedstocks, with recycled polymers making up only 2% of total output in 2019.
It points to forecasts that global plastic production capacity could grow by nearly a third over the next five years, with some businesses allegedly planning to scale up activity by as much as 400%.
The report states: “An environmental catastrophe beckons: much of the resulting single-use plastic waste will end up as pollution in developing countries with poor waste management systems. The projected rate of growth in the supply of these virgin polymers is in line with the historical rate of growth in demand for single-use plastics – which will likely keep new, circular models of production and re-use “out of the money” without regulatory stimulus.”
The report notes the problem is not an easy one to solve, due to its global scale and complex geopolitical nature – around 30% of the sector, by value, is state-owned, led by Saudi Arabia, China, and the United Arab Emirates.
To start tackling the issue, the study calls for polymer producers to transparently disclose the levels of virgin plastic production compared to recycled output, as well as their overall waste footprint. It adds that they should stop “paying lip service to sustainability”, seize the opportunity to re-tool and commit to using circularity measurement and reporting processes.
Similarly, it urges investors to disclose spending on the plastic sector and to commit to funding more circular business practices.
The Plastic Waste Makers Index underlines that tackling the problem of single-use plastic waste will also require policymakers “to display great political will and practical action” by incentivising and demanding increased recycling rates, accelerating a global treaty on plastic pollution and better monitoring the supply chain by making it a legal necessity for plastic producers to disclose their impacts.
It states: “These companies are the source of the single-use plastic crisis: their production of new “virgin” polymers from oil, gas and coal feedstocks perpetuates the take-make-waste dynamic of the plastics economy.
“The economies of scale for fossil-fuel-based production are undermining transition to a “circular” plastic economy, with negative impacts on waste collection rates, on end-of-life management and on rates of plastic pollution. The focus needs to be on producing recycled polymers from plastic waste, on re-use models and on alternative substitute materials.”