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Big Oil doubles down on recycling

A garbage man carries bags of plastic waste for recycling
Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Companies across the plastic supply chain are unifying around lofty plans to fix the world’s abysmal recycling record as a way to simultaneously protect their profits and respond to growing pressure.

Driving the news: More than two dozen companies, including ExxonMobil and Procter & Gamble, formed a coalition earlier this year seeking to pour more than $1 billion into increasing recycling.

  • Trade groups are also ramping up lobbying to oppose plastic restrictions, WSJ recently reported, arguing that alternatives can be worse.

One level deeper: The new coalition cites 2017 peer-reviewed research that found at least 88% of plastics in rivers — which that report says accounts for “a substantial fraction” of all marine plastic — come from just 10 rivers. These rivers are mostly in Asia, so the coalition is initially focused on partnering with cities in Southeast Asia to build out recycling infrastructure to stem the plastic waste in those regions, according to a spokesperson.

Where it stands: Oil companies are increasing investments in petrochemicals — building blocks of plastics — to offset anticipated demand decline elsewhere, especially transportation. To what degree the world restricts plastics could eat into the industry’s growth plans.

  • 70% of global oil demand growth by 2040 is anticipated to be used mostly for plastics, according to an annual energy outlook BP issued earlier this year.
  • In a first, the company modeled oil demand under a worldwide ban on single-use plastics. It would roughly cut in half the growth of oil demand over the next two decades.
  • Production, use and export of ethane, a component of natural gas, has increased significantly in recent years, driven by America’s oil and gas boom. Ethane is the single largest feedstock (raw material) for petrochemicals used in plastics.
  • ExxonMobil and Saudi Arabian-based SABIC got final approval earlier this week to build in Texas what will be one of the world’s largest facility processing ethane.

The other side: Environmentalists say industry’s focus on recycling reinforces the world’s plastic dependency and unfairly shifts attention to waste management.

"They could address it in very fundamental ways, by making commitments to reduce the amount of plastics being produced and reduce what it's being used for," said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, an environmental nonprofit.