Jun 15, 2019

Axios AM

Good Saturday morning. ⚡Breaking overnight ... The power of democracy: Hong Kong indefinitely delayed a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China.

  • Why it matters: It was a "dramatic retreat after anger over the bill triggered the city’s biggest and most violent street protests in decades." (Reuters)
  • What's next: Activists want more, and vowed to protest en masse tomorrow. (AP)

🎬 Today's Axios AM is a special Deep Dive edition looking ahead to tomorrow's episode of "Axios on HBO" (6 p.m. ET/PT).

  • Axios' Ina Fried visited Lego HQ in Denmark, and heard how hard it is to make those iconic bricks sustainable. See a clip.
  • This report — by Andrew Freedman, Amy Harder, Jessie Li and Alison Snyder — explores the global plastics crisis and efforts to solve it.
  • Smart Brevity count: 1,231 words, ~5 minute read.
1 big thing: Our plastic planet

Plastic objects found on the coast of England, 1994–2019. Photo: Steve McPherson for Axios

We have sipped, packaged and played our way into a global plastics crisis, Andrew writes.

  • Why it matters: Activist consumer groups are pushing for less use and less production, while industry aims for increased recycling.
  • The big picture: Plastics demand is projected to only increase — and the footprint of plastic pollution will grow with it.
  • Just 9% of plastics were recycled in the U.S. in 2015. (Globally it was estimated to be about 20%.)

Driving the news: This week, Canada announced it plans to ban single-use plastics — likely bags, straws, plates, etc. — by 2021.

  • Canada's move is part of a broader trend at various levels of government to restrict or ban certain types of plastics.
  • And there's a growing "zero waste" movement on social media.
  • Microplastics — bits of plastic less than 5 millimeters long — have been found on the farthest corners of the planet.
  • What's not yet known is the toll it's taking on our health.

What's next: Since most plastics come from fossil fuels, our plastics dependency is also exacerbating climate change.

2. By the numbers: All the plastic we've produced
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Adapted from "Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made" in Science Advances, 2017. Chart: Axios Visuals

Plastics are increasingly hardwired into the global economy, from shipping to building to computing.

  • Key stat: In 65 years, we've gone from producing very little plastic to more than 400 million metric tons in 2015.

Go deeper: The global plastic problem is even bigger than you think

3. Big Oil doubles down on 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, Amy writes.

  • 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.

Where it stands: Petrochemicals accounted for half of the growth in global oil demand last year, according to a report BP released this week.

  • 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.
  • Why it matters: The company found a worldwide ban on single-use plastics would cut the growth of oil demand roughly in half over the next two decades.
  • ExxonMobil and Saudi Arabia-based SABIC got final approval this week to build in Texas what will be one of the world's largest facilities processing ethane, the single largest North American feedstock (raw material) for petrochemicals used in plastics.

The other side: Environmentalists argue industry's focus on recycling reinforces the world’s plastic dependency.

  • To read more from Amy on this Monday, sign up for her weekly Harder Line column and our daily energy newsletter, Generate, by Ben Geman.
4. The partisan recycling gap
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Data: Survey Monkey online poll conducted June 6-10, of 4,486 adults. Total margin of error: ±2.5 percentage points. Poll methodology. Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Most consumers say they are willing to use reusable shopping bags (89%) and to pay more for products with recyclable packaging (73%).

  • But Democrats are nearly twice as willing as Republicans to pay a higher tax rate to fund recycling programs, according to an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll.
5. Solving the plastic problem

A sorting center in France. Photo: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Plastics are intertwined with our lives — driving researchers to create plant-based versions and more efficient ways to recycle, Alison writes.

The big picture: From a science perspective, the biggest challenge is consumers and companies want materials that won't degrade quickly while being used, but will degrade quickly once disposed, says Andrew Dove of the University of Birmingham in the U.K.

  • "The world wants it both ways," he says.

How it works: Plastics are recycled or burned as a source of energy. But by one estimate, 79% of plastic waste has ended up in landfills or the environment.

  • Plastics can be mixed with pigments, other materials and other plastics, which complicate recycling and limit how the chemical components of plastic can be reused.

The push for "green plastics" made from sustainable materials has given us cups made from corn-based plastic (polylactic acid) and compostable chip bags that can degrade.

Replacing petroleum-based plastics is still important in the long term, says Dove. But as it accumulates in landfills, researchers are increasingly focusing on new ways to make and recycle today's materials.

  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers recently reported an alternative process for creating a plastic commonly found in epoxies and polyurethane.
  • They were then able to break it down to its chemical building blocks, even when the plastics were colored or with other materials, and turn them back into plastic.

Scientists are also experimenting with degrading plastics using:

  • Chemical recycling: Different acids and bases can be used to break down plastics. Researchers hope to develop chemicals that can selectively degrade a single type of plastic in a stream of mixed plastic waste.
  • Enzymes: They have the advantage of being specific to a type of plastic but the disadvantage of working slowly compared to chemical recycling.
6. Oh, the places plastic will go

Collected plastic waste at Guacalillo Beach, Costa Rica. Photo: Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images

Some places plastics have been found, Jessie reports:

7. Parents against plastic

School climate strike in London. Photo: Jenny Matthews/In Pictures via Getty Images

Some parents, as part of a growing zero-waste movement, are refusing to buy plastic toys, Jessie writes.

  • Many parents in a popular zero-waste Facebook group (100,000+ members) opt for wood, fabric or paper toys.
  • Some won't accept gifts of plastic toys. "If I can return the gift, I do," New York City parent Megan Kip-Holden tells Axios.

What to watch: Toymakers are also seeking sustainable materials.

  • Tim Brooks, vice president of environmental sustainability at Lego, tells "Axios on HBO" the company's scientists have experimented with more than 200 types of material, including corn, wheat and sugarcane.
  • But they haven't found a stand-in for their bricks — only 2% of Lego toys are made of plant-based plastic.
  • Other top toy companies are focusing on packaging: Hasbro announced it would start using plant-based plastics and Mattel said it would start including How2Recycle labels, both this year.
8. 1 wondrous thing: The art of ocean trash

Artist Steve McPherson's workspace. Photo: Steve McPherson

Axios commissioned artist Steve McPherson to create a custom piece — featured in the first item of this newsletter — using plastics washed onto the coastline of England.

  • McPherson transforms these discarded, forgotten plastic objects into vibrant, beautiful pieces — forcing the viewer to confront where these objects actually originated, Jessie writes.

Since he started picking up ocean plastic as a child, McPherson has amassed a shocking collection: denture fragments, false finger nails, Lego heads, doll limbs, Scrabble pieces, computer keys, pencil sharpeners and ice cream spoons.

  • "The natural colors of the beach were confettied with these synthetic colors," McPherson tells Axios.
  • McPherson says some people who have viewed his art tell him years later that they're buying less plastic.

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