Everyone knows single-use plastic is bad for the environment, so why do we keep making more?
The world contains more single-use plastic than ever before, with an extra 1kg for every person on the planet generated in 2021 compared to 2019, according to a new report.
And it's almost entirely made from fossil fuels.
Minderoo Foundation’s Plastic Waste Makers Index (PWMI) 2023 found the increasing production — which comes despite rising awareness of its potential harm — threatens to push society further from net-zero climate goals.
Single-use plastic is "not only a pollution crisis, but a climate one", the report said. In 2021 it generated 450 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide, more than the total greenhouse gas emissions of the United Kingdom.
And while recycling offers a solution for the climate and waste crises, it remains "a marginal activity", said the report. From 2019 to 2021, growth in the mass of single-use plastics from virgin polymer outpaced that from recycled plastics by a factor of 15 to one.
Mining Billionaire Dr Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest, chairman of the Minderoo Foundation behind the report, said the fossil fuel companies were ignoring the problem.
"For the petrochemical industry to argue otherwise is green washing of the highest order," he said in a statement.
The index listed the 20 biggest contributors to single-use plastic waste generation in the world, with US-based ExxonMobil the biggest culprit, followed by China's Sinopec and US-based Dow.
In total, the global population used 139 million metric tons (MMT) of single-use plastic in 2021, up from 133 MMT in 2019.
Minderoo Foundation chairman Andrew Forrest is calling for a “polymer premium” on every kilogram of plastic polymer made from fossil fuel.
The report said the relatively "cheap" cost of creating new plastic, and the lack of responsibility placed on producers to deal with the waste further down the chain, was driving increased production.
"It is still almost always cheaper to produce new single-use plastics from fossil fuels than to reuse or recycle them," the report stated.
"This nullifies demand for plastic waste, suppresses its value as a commodity, and undermines the commercial viability of waste collection."
"The virgin polymers these companies produce enjoy massive economies of scale, while their price reflects none of the externalities they create — neither the costs of safely managing plastic waste, nor the wider social costs of harms to human health and to the environment," it added.
Dominic Charles, co-author of the Index, said it was “concerning that a greater number of the top 50 polymer producers have not achieved higher circularity scores.”
"While our research provides the evidence needed by legislators to develop meaningful industry regulation on a global scale, it should also guide corporations on the need for a greater level of transparency on their plastics circularity ambitions and actions."