energy waste

Plastics are fossil fuels too

Yesterday I was doing the washing up, and my daughter came in and told me that they’ve starting using disposable plastic cups at lunchtime at school. The school has a stock of re-usable cups – or as we used to call them, cups – but apparently it is easier just to give the children a plastic disposable and avoid the washing up.

There’s an economic trade-off here. It’s cheaper to use disposables and throw them away then it is to pay someone to wash them up. Plastic is too cheap.

And that highlights an interesting connection: plastic is made from fossil fuels, mostly natural gas and sometimes oil. When the price of gas rises, the raw materials cost for plastic goes up and companies use less of it. The value of recycling goes up, and that creates a thriving market for recyclate that encourages us all to deal with plastic waste better.

It works the opposite way too of course. When the price of gas falls, plastic is cheap. Manufacturers use as much of it as they like. Consumers buy more plastic junk. Everything comes over-packaged. It’s cheaper to make new plastic from gas than from recycling, and so the recycling market collapses. Waste plastic stacks up in warehouses, ends up in landfill or is burned in incinerators.

A quick recap of what’s going on then – the US invests in fracking. Gas production in the US soars. The increased supply pushes global gas prices down. The price of raw materials for plastic falls, and plastic manufacturers invest. Global plastic production grows rapidly, but the recycling market stutters. Plastic waste becomes a major problem.

For a more detailed and referenced version of that story, see the report Fueling plastics: how fracked gas, cheap oil and unburnable coal are driving the plastics boom. For the waste side of the equation, see GAIA’s Discarded report.

One of the most striking things about this is that the companies profiting from the long-term pollution of the natural world with plastics are the same ones profiting from the climate crisis.

From a campaign perspective, this may be an important fact to highlight. A lot of people are concerned about plastic at the moment. Coca Cola or the supermarkets tend keep getting the blame for plastics, not unfairly, but behind them stand the fossil fuel companies. Exxon Mobil, one of the most notorious corporations for climate denial, is pumping money into plastics to take advantage of cheap US gas, and announced a $2 billion factory expansion just last week. Ineos is the company lobbying most aggressively for fracking in the UK. It’s a plastics company.

All of which doubles the case for leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and it doubles the case for divestment. If you’re campaigning on plastics, don’t let the fossil fuel companies off the hook.

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