The massive scale of global ocean plastic pollution is daunting, but collective action can make a difference in more ways than one. Brands that enlist in the fight against plastic waste can have an impact beyond simply keeping plastic throwaways out of the environment. They can also help quash a looming threat posed by the rapid growth of the petrochemical industry.
The petrochemical trend is hard to miss. Here in the U.S., oil and gas giants including ExxonMobil have continued to ramp up their petrochemical operations at a rapid pace. ExxonMobil’s massive new project in Baytown, Texas is only one among many examples.
Last fall the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) reported that Louisiana and Texas alone approved more than 30 new or expanded petrochemical projects. The impact isn’t pretty. According to EIP, greenhouse gas emissions related to the new projects total up to the equivalent of 11 new coal power plants.
Part of the motivation for all this activity is the expectation of a growing middle class in Asia and Africa, leading to expansive new markets for plastic products.
The shift into petrochemicals could also help oil companies hedge against falling demand for fuel products, as the electric vehicle market begins to hit mainstream speed.
All of this is bad news for the fight against plastic pollution. However, a change in fortune for petrochemicals is also beginning to emerge.
One early warning appeared back in September 2017, when Kenya opened fire in the war against plastic pollution with stiff penalties for manufacturing, importing, selling or using plastic bags.
The movement against plastic straws is also helping to gain traction for the broader issue of plastic pollution.
Here in the U.S., Los Angeles first tried to ban plastic bags back in 2013. That ban did not take hold until 2016, and now other cities are following suit. That includes more than a dozen in New Jersey, where the state legislature is also considering a statewide ban.
Apparently, the message is not getting through to oil industry forecasters. Last October, Bloomberg took note of optimistic projections for global petrochemical growth by the International Energy Agency.
However, earlier this week Bloomberg highlighted a fatal flaw in the conventional growth projections for oil demand.
“Projections of growth in oil demand led by petrochemicals are by no means a sure thing,” Richard Chatterton, BNEF’s Head of Oil Demand, said in a report looking at the future of plastics and oil demand. “The world’s growing concern about plastics waste, combined with small but growing competition from bio-based plastics, casts serious doubt on those projections.”
The problem is that the number crunchers assumed that the demand for plastic products would keep pace with global GDP or even outrun it. They placed little weight on the ability of recycling or non-plastic alternatives to counterbalance that trend, let alone reverse it.
That was a mistake.
According to BNEF, market forces and government policies are already promoting an increase in the global recycling rate of about 1 percent annually. The current total recycling rate now stands at 18 percent.
Public awareness is also becoming a major driver of policy, as illustrated by the growing public support for banning plastic straws and bags. The element of strong public support is important for both corporate and government policy makers.
Leading companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are also beginning to see marketing opportunities in engaging with the fight against plastic pollution.
That can include using less plastic, as well as using recycled plastic.
One good example is AB InBev’s Corona brand. The company has adopted biodegradable six-pack rings as part of a broader effort to raise awareness about ocean plastic pollution. The initiative also includes Corona-sponsored beach cleanup activities.
In terms of branding, the ocean protection element dovetails neatly with Corona’s established brand identity, which has long focused on beach culture and the enjoyment of the natural environment.
Another good example of integrating brand identity with the fight against ocean plastic pollution can be found on the smaller end of the business scale as well. For example, the fashion brand Mara Hoffman began including recycled plastic performance fiber in its swimwear two years ago.
Recyclers are also pushing the trend by tailoring their products to attract brands that want to take a hand in tackling ocean plastic.
The recycled material specialist Unifi, for example, offers a “REPREVE Our Ocean” version of its proprietary REPREVE fiber, which is manufactured from recycled bottles. The Ocean version is made with bottles collected from communities on or near coastal areas, as well as from discarded plastic accumulated in countries that lack mature recycling resources.
Major brands are also beginning to attack the plastics problem at its core, by introducing consumers to reduced or multiple-use packaging.
Japan’s Kao, for example, has achieved impressive success with its refillable packaging household products in its home country. The company is best known in the U.S. for its Jergens products. Its future plans include introducing more reusable packaging to U.S. consumers.
A dozen or so other major brands have already signed up to partner with a startup called Closed Loop partners, which will launch operations in the U.S. and France this year. The Loop’s app-based business model will let consumers order deliveries of their favorite brands in reusable containers. UPS will drop off the orders and pick up empty containers to be cleaned and re-filled.
All of these trends - recycling, reusing, and alternative materials trends - have been growing slowly, one brand at a time. As demand picks up and these brands’ supply chains grow and mature, that supposed growth in demand for petrochemicals could wilt under the pressure of demand for a more sustainable approach to materials and resources.
Image credit: Rey Perezoso/Flickr
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.