For plastic-maker CEO, pollution is personal
The Ganges River is one of the holiest sites in the world, where millions of devout worshipers visit to wash away their sins every year. But the sacred site is also one of the most polluted.
About 1.2 billion pounds of plastics are dumped into its waters every year, and it’s one of 10 major rivers responsible for the lion’s share of plastics funneling into the world’s oceans.
Bob Patel, CEO of Houston’s LyondellB asell, knows this all too well. He spent the first decade of his life in India, so he has seen firsthand how the country’s rivers are riddled with refuse.
Now, the Houston executive who built a career making plastic is fighting to keep the industry’s products from piling into the waterways of his native country. Like many in the petrochemical industry, Patel is reconciling how to continue supplying the world with the modern conveniences of plastics while preventing it from ruining the very places he holds dear.
For Patel, the solution goes beyond recycling and waste cleanup. And it’s going to require a tectonic shift in how plastics are made and what happens from the moment hydrocarbon molecules are turned into resin pellets to be converted into plastics.
Patel is the driving force behind an industry effort to keep plastic waste from clogging the world’s oceans and rivers. When he was chair of the industry trade group American Chemistry Council last year, he helped bring together chief executives from the biggest plastics manufacturers to start an initiative and nonprofit called the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. The nonprofit launched in January.
Patel thought it was vital to look across the entire life cycle of a plastic product — from resins to consumer products and packaging to waste.
“We all agreed that this needed to be a cross-value chain effort and not just a chemical industry effort,” Patel said in an interview. “In order for it to have the kind of impact that we had ambition for, it would require the expertise of not only what we know about the chemistry of the plastics, but also how brand owners think about positioning plastics in their packaging.”
That sparked further conversations. Eventually waste management companies like Veolia of France and consumer products companies such as Procter & Gamble of Cincinnati joined the effort. The initiative is backed by nearly 30 global companies that have committed more than $1 billion to developing programs and technologies to minimize, manage and prevent plastic waste.
The Alliance is investing in an incubator geared toward developing better plastic recycling technologies; collaborating with the United Nations to train community leaders on waste management; and supporting the work of the Salt Lake City company Renewlogy to capture plastics entering the oceans from the 10 most polluted rivers, including the Ganges.
The Alliance isn’t without its critics. Environmentalists argue that recycling and clean up won’t end pollution as long as companies continue to rely on single-use plastics for packaging.
But Patel said that’s why companies in the Alliance have pledged to put resources toward developing new technologies to prevent plastic waste, too — whether through better chemistry to make recycling more economical or through finding ways to use less plastic material in packaging. LyondellBasell already had plans this year to open a $725 million plant in La Porte dedicated to producing lighter weight plastics. It also formed a recycling joint venture in The Netherlands with a French waste management company, Suez.
“This will all take time,” Patel said, “but when we bring the know-how and the capability of global, very large companies that are innovative across the value chain, we think this can be very powerful.”
Eventually, he hopes the river where worshippers go to cleanse their sins will be clean itself one day.
The Ganges River, a Hindu holy site, is riddled with pollution, including 1.2 billion pounds of plastics.
Bob Patel, CEO of LyondellBasell Industries