Why mounting plastic waste is a supply-demand dilemma
The petrochemicals industry wants you to know that it’s serious about plastic waste.
The companies supplying the base chemicals for bottles, bags and other plastics are touting their environmental awareness, investing in recycling and other sustainability efforts as plastic gets wrapped up in the debate about climate change and pollution.
Thanks to social media, consumers have never been more aware of the millions of tons of plastic circulating in the world’s oceans. A video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose has been viewed on YouTube nearly 33 million times and shared on countless other platforms, serving as something of a rallying cry as governments around the world consider banning straws, bags and other single-use plastics.
The petrochemicals industry is far from the only one involved in the supply and consumption of plastics, but its recent focus on ocean waste adds momentum to mounting efforts by regulators, manufacturers, consumers and environmentalists to tackle the problem. Opinions differ on how to do it — most petrochemical producers stop short of supporting outright bans on plastic, for instance — but there’s consensus that action is overdue.
A serious question remains, however. What will it actually take to roll back decades of pollution and halt the cascade of ocean waste — both in developed countries that consume the most plastic, as well as developing ones where growing demand far outstrips waste management capacity?
The intense focus on bags and straws in some ways distracts from the vast scope of the problem. Those items play a significant role in ocean waste, but so do flipflops, diapers, shampoo bottles — you name it. On top of all that, tiny plastic beads and fibers from cosmetics and clothing wash down the drain and, eventually, into the ocean, creating a swirl of microplastics that only gets worse as the bigger stuff breaks down.
Much of that plastic, big and small, congregates in the Pacific Ocean, forming a “garbage patch” spanning hundreds of thousands of square miles. A recent report by the International Energy Agency noted it could be three times the size of France, though it’s all but impossible to measure.
Estimates like that underscore the degree to which society has come to depend on disposable plastics, which have made possible a world of convenience and inexpensive consumer goods, not to mention fresher food. Petrochemicals producers and plastics manufacturers have, over the years, streamlined bottles and packaging to use less plastic, but consumption continues to rise.
At the end of the day, it’s a question of supply and demand. Both will have to decline in order to address the waste crisis.
Petrochemicals companies are starting to prepare for a day when recycling and reuse is common worldwide, as are manufacturers and retailers. But billions of consumers will have to follow suit before that day comes.
What will it actually take to roll back decades of pollution and halt the cascade of ocean waste?