Plastic has been suffocating our planet for years; this isn’t news to anyone. What has been less well reported in the corporate press is how fracking is fueling a new boom in plastic production. As Matthew Taylor reported for the Guardian, in the last year, fossil fuel companies have invested over $180 billion dollars in plastic manufacturing facilities. These facilities in turn are the source of chemical leaks, fires, explosions, and air climate pollution. As Taylor wrote, new “cracking” facilities under development by ExxonMobil, Shell, and others process the raw materials for everyday plastics from packaging to bottles, trays and cartons. These new facilities “will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade, according to experts, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis that scientist warn already risks near permanent pollution of the earth.’”
“Cracking” refers to a petrochemical process in which saturated hydrocarbons are broken down into smaller, often unsaturated, hydrocarbons.
Fracking of shale gas reservoirs, especially in the United States, has led to significant cost reductions in necessary raw materials to produce plastic resin, leading to a boom in plastic production. “I can summarize [the boom in plastics facilities] in two words,” Kevin Swift, chief economist at the American Chemistry Council, told the Guardian. “Shale gas.”
As Wenonah Hauter reported for YES! Magazine, one major company behind recent developments in fracking is Ineos, a privately-owned international chemicals company based in the UK. With more than 75 manufacturing facilities across 22 countries, Ineos has been a significant polluter in communities around the world, contributing to the growing climate crisis.
Less well-known than Shell or Exxon, Ineos has invested billions in new manufacturing sites that convert fossil fuels into the resin pellets used to manufacture plastic products.
Petrochemical companies profit from this massive surge in plastic production while the climate crisis grows. In 2015 global annual plastic production was over 300 million tons, roughly equivalent to the combined weight of every living human, the Guardian reported. This figure represents significant increases since 2002 (approximately 300 million tons) and 1976 (roughly 50 million tons). The Guardian’s investigation revealed that nearly a million plastic bottles are produced every minute, many of which end up in landfills or as pollution in the sea. Nearly eighty percent of the plastic produced over the last 70 years has been thrown away, either into landfill sites or into the general environment, Ian Johnston reported for the Independent. Just nine percent is recycled, and the remainder is incinerated.
Scientists have warned that the damage done to the planet by plastics could be irreversible. However, as the Guardian reported, “despite the rising tide of concern, powerful corporations are pressing ahead with a new generation of plastic production facilities that will swamp efforts to move the global economy away from single use, throw away plastic products.”
Matthew Taylor, “$180bn Investment in Plastic Factories Feeds Global Packaging Binge,” The Guardian, December 26, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/26/180bn-investment-in-plastic-factories-feeds-global-packaging-binge.
Wenonah Hauter, “We Are Drowning In Plastic, and Fracking Companies Are Profiting,” YES! Magazine, February 14, 2018, http://www.yesmagazine.org/planet/we-are-drowning-in-plastic-and-fracking-companies-are-profiting-20180214.
Ian Johnston, “How Plastic is Damaging Planet Earth,” The Independent, September 28, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/plastic-how-planet-earth-environment-oceans-wildlife-recycling-landfill-artificial-a7972226.html.
Student Researcher: Emily Hanlon (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluator: Robert Williams Jr. (University of Vermont)