Updated May 31, 2018 - Energy & Environment

The global plastic problem is even bigger than you think

Adapted from Geyer et al., 2017, "Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made," Science Advances; Chart: Axios Visuals
Adapted from Geyer et al., 2017, "Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made," Science Advances; Chart: Axios Visuals

Several new or recent reports highlight the damage from massive global plastics consumption and the challenge of tackling the problem. The chart above shows a stunning statistic highlighted in a recent report: Global plastics production grew to over 400 million tons in 2015.

Why it matters: Plastic bags, bottles and many other wastes are causing widespread harm to marine and coastal ecosystems and as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report reminded us, the problem is getting worse.

They kill massive numbers of marine animals (including 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals annually in one widely cited estimate), degrade their environment, and enter the food chain.

Fresh evidence of the environmental problem . . .

  • A recent study in Marine Policy that uses a major dataset on ocean debris showed that a plastic bag was located nearly seven miles below the surface in the Mariana Trench, underscoring the breadth of marine pollution.
  • A major collection of stories and stunning photos in the latest edition of National Geographic has brought fresh attention to the topic.
  • The May 24 OECD report explores ways to boost recycling and barriers to adoption. It cites data showing that worldwide, just 14%–18% of waste plastics is recycled, 24% is thermally treated, and the rest is disposed of in landfills, open burning, or gets into the environment via "uncontrolled dumping" and other means.

Why it matters for energy: Plastics are a major source of oil demand. They currently account for around 4%–8% of worldwide oil and gas consumption, per the OECD.

Petrochemical production more broadly is one reason why global oil consumption may not peak for decades, even as greater vehicle efficiency and electrification bring a peak in oil demand for transportation closer to reality.

The oil demand equation: tougher curbs on plastics could have the spillover effect of altering global oil demand levels.

BP's chief economist said in February that various policies, such as stringent restrictions on plastic bags, could shave 2 million barrels per day from global oil demand by 2040, according to multiple reports.

One staggering factoid: "By mid-century, it is estimated that the ocean could have more plastic than fish by weight," the OECD notes. A new video on their report is here.

And their report assesses a large number of policy options to bolster recycling — such as statutory targets, so-called extended producer responsibility rules, procurement policies that boost demand for recycled content, and stronger policing of illegal dumping — and barriers to their adoption

Go deeper: Scientists grapple with the world's plastic problem

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