Fossil Fuel Industry sees the Future in Hard-to-Recycle Plastic

Fossil fuel industry sees the future in hard-to-recycle plastic

Fossil fuel industry sees the future in hard-to-recycle plastic

Plastic pollution and the climate crisis are two inseparable parts of the same problem, though they aren’t treated as such. Many countries have implemented plastic bag charges and plastic straw bans while action to phase out fossil fuels lags far behind, due in part to the inertia of the huge oil and gas companies that dominate the sector.

An investigation by The Guardian recently found that just 20 of these firms are responsible for 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1965. How will they adapt as fossil fuel demand wanes with the rise of renewable energy and battery power? The answer is plastic – and that shift is already well underway.

Most of the plastic that exists today has been made in the last decade. The environment appears to be drowning in plastic for the same reason that global temperatures continue to rise – fossil fuels have remained cheap and abundant.

From filling up cars to plastic toy cars.  Steinar Engeland/Unsplash ,  CC BY

From filling up cars to plastic toy cars. Steinar Engeland/Unsplash, CC BY

Cheap plastic is made using chemicals produced in the process of making fuel. Petroleum refining transforms crude oil extracted from the ground into gasoline, producing ethane as a byproduct. A decade ago, the advent of fracking – hydraulic fracturing of oil or natural gas – made the raw materials for plastics significantly cheaper.

Fracking shale gas produces lots of ethane, which is turned into ethylene – the building block for many hard-to-recycle plastic products, like packaging films, sachets and bottles. Cheap polyethylene from fracking created a glut of plastic packaging on supermarket shelves that sociologist Rebecca Altman has called “frackaging”.

There are few facilities worldwide that can dispose of or recycle this kind of plastic efficiently. They’re expensive to set up and run and there’s little demand for using the recycled material to make new products. While packaging is the single largest source of plastic demand, most of that is thrown away as soon as it’s removed, with one third of it estimated to go directly to domestic waste and either incineration or landfill. In much of the world, a lot of it goes directly into the environment.

Reducing fuel consumption won’t necessarily solve the plastic problem. Global plastic production is expected to double in the next 15 years even as demand for gasoline wanes. In 2017, 50% of all crude oil produced worldwide was refined into fuel for transport, most as gasoline. Electric vehicles and more efficient forms of public transport mean gasoline demand is falling. The oil and gas companies who own these refineries are instead gearing up to turn what is now excess fuel into plastics for packaging.

Climate change in a bottle

As demand for gasoline continues to decline in future, more plastics will be made directly from crude oil. Petroleum companies now plan to convert up to 40% of the crude oil they intend to extract into petrochemicals. These are chemicals like acetylene, benzene, ethane, ethylene, methane, propane, and hydrogen, which form the basis for thousands of other products, including plastics.

The industry predicts petrochemicals will grow from 16% of oil demand in 2020 to 20% by 2040 largely to supply the feedstocks for making plastics. The environmental consequences of making even more plastic from crude oil will be significant. More plastic pollution will enter watercourses and the ocean, while amping up production will accelerate global emissions.

Read more: Plastic warms the planet twice as much as aviation – here's how to make it climate-friendly

That’s because making plastic releases carbon dioxide (CO₂). Both transporting the crude oil to make it and then disposing of the plastic by incineration generates emissions. Most of the estimated total natural capital cost of plastic pollution – USD$75 billion per year for the consumer goods sector alone – arises from CO₂ emissions linked to producing and transporting plastic.

Expanding plastic production and sending more plastic either directly to incineration or to waste-to-energy facilities - where plastics are turned into oil and used to generate electricity or heat – mean CO₂ emissions from plastic are expected to triple by 2050 to 309m metric tonnes. Incinerating mountains of plastic waste could become one of the largest sources of C0₂ emissions in Europe’s energy sector as fossil fuels are phased out.

Annual plastic production and use currently emits as much CO₂ each year as 189 500 megawatt coal power plants.  CIEL , Author provided

Annual plastic production and use currently emits as much CO₂ each year as 189 500 megawatt coal power plants. CIEL, Author provided

Halving the use of petroleum-based plastic packaging by 2030 and phasing it out altogether by 2050 could ensure CO₂ emissions targets are still met. Achieving net zero emissions from incinerating plastic packaging means eliminating all non-essential uses of petroleum-based plastic by 2035, following a peak in packaging and other single use, disposable plastics in 2025. Replacing traditional plastics with new materials made from renewable sources like corn starch could help, as could developing a new infrastructure for industrial plastic composting.

In a climate crisis, plastic waste doesn’t look like the world’s most pressing environmental problem. But considering plastic and climate as two separate issues is a mistake. Concern about plastic pollution isn’t distracting people from a more serious problem – plastic is the problem. If we see plastics as “solid climate change”, they become central to the climate crisis.

DEIRDRE MCKAY is a Reader in Geography and Environmental Politics at Keele University.


From North Carolina to Norway, Fossil Fuel Divestment Hits Headlines

Whether motivated by practical or ideological means, institutions around the world are pulling their finances out of oil, gas, and coal.

Divestment protest at Tufts University. James Ennis. CC BY 2.0

Divestment protest at Tufts University. James Ennis. CC BY 2.0

Upon receiving the news in 2017 that our planet is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction event, spurred partly by rampant climate change, stunned denizens of Earth everywhere struggled to process the implications and searched for concrete ways to mitigate the damage. In the months since, countless climate proposals have rolled out across the globe, and U.S. citizens have watched as 2020 presidential hopefuls laid out their plans—all while the current president decried the very existence of climate change. In the flurry of rhetoric and policy aimed at addressing the climate crisis, one strategy continues to hold strong: fossil fuel divestment, which has hit the headlines this summer with particular force.

On July 4—Independence Day in the United States—Britain’s largest membership organization declared independence from fossil fuel investments. The National Trust, which stewards 780 miles of coastline; 612,000 acres of land; and more than 500 historic houses, castles, monuments, and parks, announced that it would divest its £1 billion portfolio from fossil fuels in a bid to address the worsening climate crisis. 

Previously, the trust had invested £45 million into oil, gas, and mining companies, despite having made earlier pledges to cut down on its own use of fossil fuels. The vast majority of those investments will be withdrawn in the next 12 months, the trust promises, and 100 percent within three years. The freed-up funds will be diverted to alternative energy options: CFO Peter Vermeulen told The Guardian, “Now we will seek to invest in green startup businesses and other suitable portfolios that deliver benefits for the environment, nature and people.”

Fossil Free Freiburg divestment protest. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fossil Free Freiburg divestment protest. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Five hundred miles away in Norway, another high-profile institution is also preparing to drop fossil fuels: the Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), which was founded in 1990 to oversee the integration of petroleum revenues into the national economy, and which invests in more than 9,000 companies worldwide, including Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. On June 21, Norway’s parliament, the Storting, approved plans for the GPFG to divest more than $13 billion of the $1.06 trillion it manages from investments in oil, gas, and coal. The decision comes with some caveats: GPFG will only divest from companies that are exclusively involved with fossil fuels, but not oil companies that also have renewable energy units, such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell. And the fund maintains that financial considerations, not ideological ones, are behind the divestment, given the risk posed by fluctuations in oil prices. Nevertheless, environmental advocates can appreciate the fact that GPFG will earmark up to 2 percent of its funds—or about $20 billion—for investments in renewable energy.

In some cases, not only individual institutions are divesting, but also entire regions. At the beginning of June, the city council of Charlottesville, Va., voted 4-1 to divest the city’s operating budget investments from any entity involved with the production of fossil fuels or weapons. Supporters explain that the divestment—which will be carried out within 30 days of the decision—aligns with the city’s strategic plan goals, including being responsible stewards of natural resources. Charlottesville joins various other college towns across the United States, including Ann Arbor, Mich., and Berkeley, Calif., in pledging to divest.

At some universities, however, the prospect of divestment has long brewed controversy, which is coming to a head in light of the climate crisis. During Al Gore’s speech at Harvard University on May 29, the former vice president turned environmental activist called on his alma mater to divest, stating that climate change is “a threat to the survival of human civilization as we know it” and framing divestment as “a moral issue” for the university. In recent years, student activists at Harvard have ramped up demands on the school to divest, and the student newspaper reversed its formerly opposed position in May, acknowledging that Harvard’s reluctance to entertain the possibility of divestment “compromises its efforts to position itself as an academic institution at the forefront of the fight against climate change.” On the administrative side, more than 300 faculty members have signed a petition calling for divestment of fossil fuel stocks. Nevertheless, this number represents less than 14 percent of all faculty, and the university maintains the opinion that it should impact public policy through research rather than through its endowment.

Advocates for divestment at Harvard. victorgrigas. CC BY-SA 3.0

Advocates for divestment at Harvard. victorgrigas. CC BY-SA 3.0

Across the country, 47 U.S. colleges and universities have chosen to divest, although the number has dropped off in recent years, with only 10 making the decision since 2017. Most recently, the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, voted on June 21 to divest a portion of their $50 million endowment from fossil fuels. The unanimous vote, which will make the Asheville campus the first in the UNC system to divest, builds on a resolution spearheaded by student activists. In concert with administration and the Board, these activists researched new funds in which the university could invest about 10 percent of its capital, eventually landing on Walden Asset Management, which focuses on investing using environmental, social, and governance criteria.

Botanical gardens at Asheville. David441491. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Botanical gardens at Asheville. David441491. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the University of California—another sprawling and well-regarded state university system—saw 77 percent of its voting faculty agree “to divest the university’s endowment portfolio of all investments in the 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies with the largest carbon reserves.” The decision is now in the hands of the University Regents. Should the Regents choose to divest, the news would make waves on the national level due to U Cal’s significant size and prestige—and in the fight against fossil fuels, ideological statements, even if they have negligible bearing on the industry’s financial resources, are of the utmost importance.

Individuals in academic circles, therefore, are beginning to take their own stands to support divestment. In a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, climate activists Christiana Figueres and Bill McKibben explain that they have begun refusing to accept honorary degrees from colleges that have not divested, writing, “[e]ach of us has already turned down these honors at institutions that remain committed to coal, gas, and oil.” Meanwhile, members of the younger generation are also weighing in—such as Jamie Margolin, a rising high school senior and prominent environmental activist with more than 11,000 Twitter followers. In a piece for Teen Vogue last month, Margolin wrote, “I have serious concerns about how my future school might be investing in fossil fuels and, if they can’t be convinced to divest by student activists like me, how that might render my college education useless.” From Norway to Britain to Asheville to Cambridge, from Ivy-educated vice presidents to those still awaiting their high school degrees, the world is beginning to agree that taking action is not optional.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.


Ireland Becomes the First Country to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Executive Director of Trócaire calls the bill “both substantive and symbolic.”

Sunset in Skerries, Ireland.  Giuseppe Milo. CC BY 2.0

Sunset in Skerries, Ireland. Giuseppe Milo. CC BY 2.0

Last July, Ireland moved to take public funds out of fossil fuels. While many universities, organizations, and even cities have made similar commitments, Ireland will be the first country to do so. According to the New York Times, Ireland’s action represents the most substantial advance for divestment in the world.

The bill commiting to divestment was passed with all party support by the lower house of Parliament and necessitates that money from the sovereign fund (8.9 billion euros) be taken out of fossil fuels. According to a statement, the change will be made, “as soon as practicable.” (The phrase likely refers to changes made to the bill: originally it called for divestment within five years, but was altered to give the government more flexibility.)

According to the Guardian, the bill defines a fossil fuel company as one that receives 20% or more of its income from the “exploration, extraction or refinement of fossil fuels.”

The divestment bill will move on to the Senate which has the ability to delay, but not overturn it. According to the aid of Thomas Pringle, the parliament member who introduced the bill, it has the support of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and is thus almost guaranteed to become law. Varadkar’s support is expected, as he has professed hopes that Ireland will become a “leader in climate action.”

According to Pringle himself, the “movement is highlighting the need to stop investing in the expansion of a global industry which must be brought into managed decline if catastrophic climate change is to be averted. Ireland by divesting is sending a clear message that the Irish public and the international community are ready to think and act beyond narrow short term vested interests.”

Eamonn Meehan, director of Trócaire, the environmental organization that advocated for the bill, told the New York Times that the bill, “will stop public money being invested against the public interest, and it sends a clear signal nationally and globally that action on the climate crisis needs to be accelerated urgently, starting with the phase-out of fossil fuels.”

Currently, Ireland has over 300 million euros in fossil fuel investments, according to the Guardian. The country's decision to divest is so momentous in part because of its reputation as slacker in fighting climate change. According to a survey by Climate Action Network, conducted a month before the decision, Ireland was was ranked second to last in the category of climate action, followed by Poland. The country’s decision to divest promises a greener future for Ireland.

Now, Ireland hopes that other countries will follow its lead. According to Gerry Liston of the Global Legal Action Network, and drafter of the bill, “governments will not meet their obligations under the Paris agreement on climate change if they continue to financially sustain the fossil fuel industry. Countries the world over must now urgently follow Ireland’s lead and divest from fossil fuels.”




EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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