Guess What? More Plastic Trash.
When Exxon Mobil announced a record $56 billion annual profits last week, it noted that the company had established “one of the largest advanced recycling facilities in North America, capable of processing more than 80 million pounds of plastic waste per year.”
That seems like a lot of recycling muscle, except when you consider another figure. The company produced an estimated 6 million metric tons, or 13.2 billion pounds, of polymers used to make plastic in 2021 alone. That is an estimate from a report published by the Minderoo Foundation, set up by the Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest. Minderoo tracks plastic waste and campaigns against it.
Exxon is the largest producer of virgin polymers, which are derived from petrochemicals and used in plastic. The company did not immediately return a call for a comment.
The second largest is a Chinese company called Sinopec.
Despite consumer concern, we are trashing more and more plastic.
Plastics production continued to grow, according to industry data. So did plastic trash: 139 million metric tons in 2021, more than ever before. That’s a lot, especially considering that plastic entered our everyday lives after World War II. They’re so pervasive that when one reporter tried to spend a day living without plastic, it yielded this delightfully absurd essay.
Almost all of that 139 million metric tons of that plastic waste is made new from petroleum products that have never been processed. Barely 2 percent gets recycled, Minderoo researchers estimated.
Plastic waste is more than a local environmental pollutant.
It clogs streams. It chokes turtles. It gets caught on a bare branch and blows in the breeze. It stews in landfills.
But it is also a climate pollutant. From the extraction of fossil fuels to make polymers to the transport and disposal of the waste, single-use plastics produced 450 million metric tons of planet-warming greenhouse gases in 2021 alone, according to estimates by Minderoo, or just below the annual emissions of Britain.
Minderoo is pressing for levies on “fossil-fuel polymer production and/or consumption” to fund the collection and recycling of plastic waste.
What about those triangles and arrows on plastic products?
They’re deceptive. Many of us assume the ♺ triangle means we can dispose of the product in our municipal recycling bins. Not so. Each triangle has a number within. Numbers 1 and 2 are commonly recyclable in the United States. For Numbers 3-7, it’s sometimes, rarely or never. (California banned the use of the symbol on plastics that are not widely recyclable.)
Rigid plastics are more likely to be recycled than soft plastics.
Some of the worst kinds of plastics are also those products that are marketed to the poor, especially in the global south: tiny, low-priced sachets of shampoos and creams. Sachets are made of soft thin plastic. They are hard to collect, sort and recycle.
Here’s our guide from last year, and an earlier Climate Forward newsletter that describes how some cities outside the United States are handling plastic waste.
And the plastic bag bans?
There have been many such bag bans in recent years. Among the unexpected consequences: They seem to lead to an increase in plastic trash bags.
We’re keeping an eye on negotiations for a global plastics treaty.
This is the battleground where plastic producers, environmentalists and negotiators from every country are hammering out what is intended to be a global agreement to deal with plastic waste.
The big tension is between environmental campaigners who want to curb the production of polymers, the raw goods that go into plastic, and industry groups that want to focus on how to better collect and recycle plastic.
At negotiations in Uruguay in December, the United States advocated for an accord like the Paris climate agreement under which countries would set their own national voluntary targets and plans. Others, including the European Union, want mandatory global regulations for every country and company to abide by.
The next round of negotiations are in May. We’ll keep you posted.
Essential news from The Times
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A warship’s demise: The Brazilian Navy said it had begun an operation to send the aircraft carrier São Paulo, packed with asbestos, to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Bad news for bears: The Biden administration is taking a step toward lifting protections for some grizzlies. It could open the door to hunting in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
A Canadian quarrel: The Ontario provincial government has opened up parts of the greenbelt around Toronto for the construction of 50,000 new homes. Some locals aren’t happy.
How to spy on a radical group: A literary agent struck a book deal with the spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front. Literature was the least of his concerns.
From outside The Times
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Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.
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