Global plastic production continues to soar, roaring towards a cumulative total of some 8 billion tonnes.
You’ll sometimes read that, since it’s not biodegradeable, all plastic ever created still exists. That’s not strictly true. There isn’t 8 billion tonnes of plastic in the world, since about a quarter of waste plastic is burned to dispose of it. But even that remains in the form of toxins and greenhouse gases.
Nevertheless, plastic is accumulating in the environment, a horrendous legacy for future generations and a blight on communities today. Despite the attention it has received, and robust laws to control it in some parts of the world, there’s no slowdown in production. And so it’s worth asking who is making it? Who is profitting from plastics, especially the single use plastics that make up the bulk of the problem?
The Australia-based Minderoo Foundation have recently analysed plastic production and identified the 100 biggest producers of single use plastics. These 100 companies account for 90% of plastic waste, and the top 20 companies are responsible for half of it between them.
Here’s the top ten:
- Indorama Ventures
- Saudi Aramco
- Reliance Industries
- Alpek SA de CV
This is an international problem. The top two are American, but India, Thailand, China and Saudi Arabia feature. Braska is based in Brazil, Alpek in Mexico. LyondellBasell is a British company, but registered in the Netherlands for tax purposes. The rest of the top 100 has some recurring big names and locations, while some regions of the world are more or less absent from the list, but still have to deal with plastic waste. Africa and the Carribean for example.
One striking thing about the top of the list is the presence of ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco. Those two both appear at the top of lists of companies most responsible for climate change, making them among the most destructive organisations in history.
Another thing to note is that while the divestment movement has been highlighting the irresponsible business model of ExxonMobil and their ilk, Saudi Aramco is state owned. So are Sinopec and PetroChina, where the Chinese government has a controlling stake. In fact, 30% of the global plastics industry is state-owned, mainly from China and the Middle East. That makes plastics a geopolitical problem with diplomatic solutions as well as corporate ones.
The report also follows the money. The top bank funding single use plastics? Barclays.
These kinds of studies are useful in putting names and faces to the problem of waste plastic. Somebody signs off on new plastic plants, or chooses to prioritise investment in virgin plastics rather than recycling. There are board members and investors. Pinning them down allows for more targeted lobbying or protest. And that is more urgent than ever, considering that the biggest companies are investing in expanding production. The problem is going to get worse before it gets better, and there is no time to waste.
- The full report is called the Plastic Waste Makers Index.