T.V. naturalist Sir David Attenborough made his viewers weep last month with an exposé on how plastics are polluting the oceans, harming marine animals and fish. Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a slew of new measures to discourage plastics use, including plastic-free supermarket aisles and an expanded levy on plastic bags. A ban on microbeads in cosmetics came into force this year. Not to be outdone, the EU is mulling plastics taxes to cut pollution and packaging waste. Is this industry the new tobacco?
It’s no wonder politicians feel compelled to act. About 60 percent of all the plastics produced either went to landfill or have been dumped in the natural environment. At current rates there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 by weight, much of it in the form of small particles, ingestible by wildlife and very difficult to remove.
Public awareness has increased in recent years, yet that hasn’t led to falling consumption. More than half of the total plastics production has occurred since the turn of the millennium. Producers such as DowDuPont Inc, Exxon Mobil Corp, LyondellBasell Industries NV and Ineos Group Ltd, as well as packaging manufacturers like Amcor Ltd, Berry Global Group Inc and RPC Group Plc have been happy to meet that demand. They don’t plan on it ending suddenly.
Plastic packaging is an almost $290 billion-a-year business and sales are forecast to expand by almost 4 percent a year until 2022, according to research firm Smithers Pira. Demand for polyethylene, the most used plastic, is set to rise at a similar rate, meaning total consumption will rise to 118 million metric tons in 2022, according to IHS Markit. In the U.S., the shale gas boom has encouraged the construction of new ethylene plants. Oil companies are counting too on rising plastics consumption to offset the spread of electric vehicles, as my colleague Julian Lee has explained.
The reasons for the bullishness are obvious. Growing populations, rising living standards and the march of e-commerce mean more demand. In developed countries, per capita polyethylene use is as much as 40 kg per person, whereas in poorer countries like India the figure is just one tenth of that, according to IHS Markit. Plastics are displacing materials like glass and paper because they tend to be cheap, lightweight and sturdy. That plastics don’t easily decompose is an asset - it prevents food going bad - as well as a liability for the natural environment.
Cutting consumption will be difficult. While bioplastics are an alternative, they make up only about 1 percent of global plastics demand. Quality and cost issues have prevented wider adoption. “A lot of these materials aren’t really competitive in a world of low to mid oil prices,” says Sebastian Bray, analyst at Berenberg.
Plastic bag levies have proven effective. Britain claims its 5 pence charge means 9 billion fewer plastic bags have been used - but bags account for just a couple of percentage points of global polyethylene consumption, according to Bernstein analyst Jonas Oxgaard. A tax on plastic packaging probably wouldn’t achieve much, he says, because plastic is such a tiny part of the total cost of most products. Recycling technology is improving, but isn’t always economic because of the low-value of plastic waste that’s collected or the complexity of mixed-material packing.
That’s not to say big changes aren’t possible - or necessary. Last year China said it would halt imports of plastic waste after its recycling industry caused too much local pollution. Unfortunately, one result will be more demand for new plastic resins (to replace what can’t be re-purposed) - a win for plastic producers. Still, China’s blockade might prompt developed countries to deal better with their own waste. Europe has exported half the plastics waste it collects, much to China, arguably with insufficient guarantees it would be handled properly.
China is thought to be chief source of plastic pollution entering the world’s oceans. About two-thirds of the total probably originates from just 10 emerging market nations. Pressing these countries to improve waste collection would doubtless be more effective in helping the oceans than the U.K.’s plastic-free supermarket aisles. That doesn’t get the plastics industry off the hook though. Despite all the heady forecasts, the political tide is moving against it.
Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.