Plastic Industry’s Embarrassingly Small Impact

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    Stockholm (NordSIP) – Let’s say Laundromat weighs 80 kg and goes on a diet.  Many months later, having lost a total of 8 grammes, I send out a celebratory message bragging about this achievement on social media.  This behaviour would certainly seem odd to any rationally minded observers.  However, this is more or less what the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) is doing with the publication this week of its 2022 Progress Report.  This may be a contender for the year’s most brazen greenwashing attempt.

    Huge resources, zero impact

    Let us look at some numbers.  The AEPW brings together 70 companies from the plastic value chain, including most of the biggest players such as ExxonMobil, Matsui, Dow, BASF and Lyondellbasell.  In presenting the Alliance’s cumulative impact since 2019, our attention is drawn to the headline figure of 38,729 tonnes of unmanaged plastic waste reduced since inception.  Any such reduction is clearly a good thing in itself, but the AEPW neglects to provide any context whatsoever.  Do they think we cannot handle percentages?  The world produced 353,000,000 tonnes of plastic waste in 2019.  According to the OECD, this figure is projected to triple by 2060.  Let us be conservative and use the 2019 figure for the 4-year period covered in the report.  That results in 1,412,000,000 tonnes of plastic waste, of which the AEPW dealt with around 0.0027%.

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    To quote the AEPW: “The way we measure impact must be robust. While the volume of plastic waste collected, recycled, and related data are important, we must ensure that the full breadth of the Alliance’s activities and impact is captured.  Building on lessons learnt, the metrics used in this report are more comprehensive than in previous years.” That sounds indeed reassuring but let us peruse some of the other headline numbers.

    The report states that funding totalling $225 million has been allocated by the AEPW to projects and mission-related activities over the 4-year period since inception.  A conservative estimate of annual global plastic sales is $550 billion – a figure that is fast rising.  This means that the AEPW’s allocation to waste reduction represents roughly 0.01% of the industry’s sales over the period in question.

    Deflection tactics

    While it is not difficult to make these calculations, the publication of statistics without context seems to be a consistent greenwashing strategy employed by the fossil industry.  In the absence of fact-checking, a false impression of positive action can easily be disseminated on social media and in marketing materials.  With the carbon reduction spotlight mainly on energy and fuels, ramping up plastic production is seen as one way to safeguard revenues and profitability.  The AEPW progress report, along with its accompanying social media and website posts highlights a range of local waste reduction and management projects in the developing world.  These are all worthwhile in their own right, but the headline numbers – when put in the right context – demonstrate the complete lack of genuine ambition on the plastic industry’s part.  The actual waste reduction achieved under the auspices of these 70 plastic industry heavy hitters in four years is almost comically miniscule, but nobody is laughing.

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