For plas­tic-maker CEO, pol­lu­tion is per­sonal

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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.

Ra­jesh Kumar Singh / As­so­ci­ated Press

The Ganges River, a Hindu holy site, is rid­dled with pol­lu­tion, in­clud­ing 1.2 bil­lion pounds of plas­tics.

Yi-Chin Lee / Staff

Bob Pa­tel, CEO of Lyon­del­lBasell In­dus­tries

Marissa Luck

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