Polluting single-use plastic production rose globally by 6 million tonnes per year from 2019 to 2021 despite tougher worldwide regulations, with producers making “little progress” to tackle the problem and boost recycling, new research showed on Monday.
Single-use plastics have emerged as one of the world’s most pressing environmental threats, with vast amounts of waste buried in landfills or dumped untreated in rivers and oceans. The manufacturing process is also a major source of climate-warming greenhouse gas.
But while growth has slowed recently, the production of single-use plastic from “virgin” fossil fuel sources is still nowhere near its peak, and the use of recycled feedstocks remains “at best a marginal activity”, Australia’s Minderoo Foundation said in its Plastic Waste Makers Index.
“Make no mistake, the plastic waste crisis is going to get significantly worse before we see an absolute year-on-year decline in virgin single-use plastic consumption,” it said.
Exxon Mobil was at the top of the list of global petrochemical companies producing virgin polymers used in single-use plastics, followed by China’s Sinopec.
With China’s recent reopening, that recovery is set to continue, the head of IATA said.
“This momentum is expected to continue in the New Year, despite some governments’ overreactions to China’s reopening,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director-general.
Sinopec also leads the way when it comes to building new production facilities over the 2019-2027 period, the report said, with more than 5 million tonnes of annual capacity planned. Exxon Mobil was second with around 4 million tonnes.
Sinopec said in a statement that it was the first Chinese company to join the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a global coalition of companies supporting sustainable plastic, and was also developing its own biodegradable plastic products.
China has driven rapid growth in global plastic demand over the past 15 years. Despite high-profile bans on some single-use products starting in 2019, it also accounted for half of the 15 million tonnes of new capacity that came online over 2019-2021.
China said last year in a “five-year plan” to tackle plastic production that it would make deep cuts in the production and usage of single-use plastics and ban some products entirely.
Chinese production growth is expected to slow, but the country still accounts for half of the top 20 companies planning to increase virgin polymer capacity up to 2027, Minderoo said.
Around 137 million tonnes of single-use plastics were produced from fossil fuels in 2021, and it is expected to rise by another 17 million tonnes by 2027, the researchers said.