The past two weeks have seen much finger-pointing about the absence of world leaders at COP26. Was China showing bad faith with its complacent shrug toward the summit? Was Putin entrenching his pariah status by staying away?
But nobody asked about the absence of the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases: the global plastics industry. Slipping under the radar, the quiet but relentless growth of plastic was not even on the agenda in Glasgow.
COP concluded with a commitment to “phase down” the use of coal. Yet global plastic production is due to triple by 2030, with emissions from the industry set to exceed those of the dirty black stuff in the same period. Plastic already accounts for 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
You can tell the direction of travel by following the money invested by the fossil fuel giants. The oil industry is investing in plastics on a monumental scale. In the past few years, companies such as ExxonMobil and Dow have built or started construction on at least 42 new US polyethylene plants and lines. The surge is largely centred along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.
There is a sense within governments around the world that reducing greenhouse gas emissions to keep climate warming to ‘only’ 1.5 degrees is an entirely separate issue to plastic pollution. Both are important, they say, but “let’s deal with the climate crisis first”. Yet trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without addressing burgeoning global production of plastic is like trying to reduce smoking-related deaths without imposing restrictions on the sale of cigarettes.
The House of Commons environment select committee is presently embarked on a fresh inquiry into how to deal with plastic waste. It is a beguiling question that assumes the developed world can continue to rely on plastic just so long as we become better at managing the effluent from our addiction. It stems from a perception that plastic is primarily about packaging, so if we can find a way to recycle it, all our problems are solved.
But packaging accounts for only 40% of plastic production. More insidious still is the tonnes of plastic generated each year to support fast fashion. Indeed, synthetic fibres represent over two-thirds (69%) of all materials used in textiles, with that amount expected to rise to three quarters by 2030 according to a report from the Changing Markets Foundation.
The environmental impact has three stages: the carbon emissions and wastewater from production; the escape of plastic microfibres into our soil and our seas as the garments are washed; and the further emissions caused by incinerating or landfilling clothes at the ‘end of life’. Most items of clothing – made from plastic, the Earth’s most indestructible substance – are worn on average four times before being thrown away.
Meanwhile, plastic is shaping up to be the root of a new public health crisis. New research shows we inhale a hundred times more microplastics in our homes than previously estimated, with disproportionate levels of exposure for children. Fossil fuel-based microplastics and nanoplastics are in everything we eat and breathe: an oil spill into our oesophaguses, lungs and stomachs.
The crucial question the UK needs to ask – and COP should have asked – is not how to deal with plastic waste but how to stop producing so much plastic in the first place. The major, global expansion of plastics manufacturing is the last gasp of a fossil fuel industry which has been hounded out of the energy sector, and is looking for refuge elsewhere. By allowing it safe harbour, governments are placing their own challenging climate targets – and the longevity of the planet – in peril.
COP should have laid the foundations for a global agreement on plastics reduction, putting in place incentives for the use of natural fibres in clothing, the use of refillable materials in the food retail sector, and the substitution of conventional plastic with sustainable, bio-based alternatives wherever there really is no alternative to single-use.
The vast, planned expansion of the plastics industry is not inevitable or unavoidable. It could be stopped if action were taken now. But as things stand, the world is set to find itself back in Glasgow in thirty years’ time asking why the Earth is already two degrees warmer than in 1990, despite a widespread switch from coal and gas to renewable energy. By then, the great absentee, the glaring omission from COP – the plastics industry – will be plain for all to see.