An Australian philanthropic foundation has collected worldwide data to expose the top 100 companies that produce 90 percent of the world’s single-use plastic waste and at the same time has exposed a sinister underbelly that perpetuates this plastic nightmare.
In 2019 more than 130 million metric tons of single-use plastic polymer was produced, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
And after serving only one brief purpose, the product is dumped into the ground or burnt, while large portions of it find its way into the natural environment.
This was graphically exposed in 2019 when an audit of 476,423 pieces of plastic waste collected by World Clean Up Day volunteers revealed 11,732 from Coca-Cola – a brand name we can all identify with global plastic pollution as seen in the report at https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/globalbrandauditreport2019.
But in this ground-breaking study, the Minderoo Foundation from Western Australia, looked beyond the brands using single-use plastics in their products to examine the actual producers of this mountain of plastic pollution.
The organisation catalogued the top 100 petrochemical companies that produce the raw plastic polymer at the origin of the plastic supply chain and found the field dominated by just 20 corporations that produce 55 percent of global plastic waste.
At the top of this top-20 list is two US-based producers, ExxonMobil and then Dow, while the Chinese Sinopec is a close third. These three corporations alone produce more than 5 million metric tons of plastic waste.
In a foreword to the report, former US Vice President Al Gore says: “The trajectories of the climate crisis and the plastic waste crisis are strikingly similar – and increasingly intertwined.”
He likens the treatment of the atmosphere as that of an “open sewer” and the ocean like a “liquid landfill left to accumulate at least eight million metric tons of plastic waste each year”.
And while electricity generation and transport – two of the big earners for fossil fuel companies – are being cleaned up Gore says that they are “scrambling to massively expand their third market – petrochemicals”, adding that plastic production is 75 percent of this market.
But apart from exposing the companies using fossil fuels to produce this plastic environmental waste the foundation has revealed that the banking and investment industry is bankrolling this environmental catastrophe.
The report states: “Twenty institutional asset managers – led by US companies Vanguard Group, BlackRock and Capital Group – hold over US$300 billion worth of shares in the parent companies of these polymer producers, of which an estimated US$10 billion comes from the production of virgin polymers for single-use plastics.”
It adds: “Twenty of the world’s largest banks, including Barclays, HSBC and Bank of America, are estimated to have lent almost US$30 billion for the production of these polymers since 2011.”
A major contributor to the problem is the petrochemical industry’s failure to pursue alternatives to fossil-fuel-based plastics. The report states: “The 100 largest polymer producers all continue to rely almost exclusively on “virgin” (fossil-fuel-based) feedstocks,” and adds that: “In 2019, production of recycled polymers from plastic waste – a “circular” model – accounted for no more than two per cent of total output.”
The gravity of the situation is made worse by a projected production increase of more than 30 percent while single-use plastic production is “entrenched” in a geopolitical system that lacks the political will to legislate for “transitioning away from the take-make-waste model of single-use plastics”.
The report says the problem is “underscored by the high degree of state ownership in these polymer producers” and points out that “an estimated 30 percent of the sector, by value, is state-owned, with Saudi Arabia, China, and the United Arab Emirates the top three”.
The Minderoo Foundation report (https://www.minderoo.org/plastic-waste-makers-index/findings/executive-summary/) was supported by collaborators such as LSE, Wood Mackenzie, Planet Tracker, Profundo and the Stockholm Environment Institute.
Data from the report can be explored at https://sourceofplasticwaste.org/.