Oil industry is spending billions on increasing plastics production

Refinery, Houston Ship Channel
© Refinery, Houston Ship Channel/ LOREN ELLIOTT/AFP via Getty Images

Think we are cutting back? They are just getting started, and we are going to be buried in the stuff.

If you follow the happy Post-Anthropocene timeline of the Arup 2050 Scenarios, by 2045 virgin plastic will be banned globally, as "circular processing of waste is now the global norm and all plastic is made from 100% reused materials."

If you follow the money, it's a very different story. Adam Minter points to The Boom in Plastics, which excitedly notes:


The increase in the production of petrochemicals, spurred by the abundance of shale gas as feedstock and the demand for ethane – a key component in plastics – has prompted energy companies to continue investing billions of dollars in the petrochemical sector. “The global petrochemical sector continues to expand exponentially as developing nations' demand for petrochemical/chemical products continues to increase,” says Petroleum Economist, a highly respected energy industry publication.

Consultants note that oil producers are pivoting to plastics, away from gas or diesel, and that demand for petrochemical feedstocks will increase by fifty percent. Petrochemical manufacturers are building 11 new ethylene plants on the Gulf Coast, with capacity for polyethylene growing by 30 percent. The director of the trade association says, “You are going to see over $200 billion in investment in the Gulf Coast specifically related to petrochemical manufacturing.”

Reading on, you would never guess that we have a carbon crisis in our atmosphere or a plastics crisis in our oceans. Harbors are being dredged, methanol complexes are being built, giant warehouses for pellet storage are under construction. "The Port of Greater Baton Rouge had its fortunes boosted recently with the announcement that ExxonMobil will spend $469 million to add a polypropylene manufacturing unit to its vast greater Baton Rouge petrochemical complex."

Another $9.4 billion manufacturing complex on the Mississippi River will produce MDI or methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, which goes into our favorite products: polyurethane, spray-foam insulation, furniture, and textiles.

TreeHugger has previously warned that Big Oil would pivot to plastic as the rise of the electric car put a big dent in demand, quoting Tim Young of the Financial Times:

It is the only major source of oil demand where growth is expected to accelerate. These forecasts assume a steady, strong demand for plastic will translate into increasing consumption of feedstock. They provide a rare ray of optimism for the oil industry against increasingly dire long-term predictions that growth of other demand sources will slow.

Garbage trucksGarbage trucks/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

For all our talk about cutting back on plastics, we are using more and more of them, from our coffee pods to our Uber Eats to new waste-to-energy projects that replace recycling, basically burning fossil fuels that have an intermediate pit stop as your take-out food containers.

This is the biggest, most powerful industry in the world, which will keep developing ever more convenient and attractive ways for us to use more and more plastic. They are spending billions on new petrochemical capacity which will completely destroy any market that exists for recycled plastic. The Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco is now valued at two TRILLION dollars, the most valuable company in the world; that is how confident people are that this will continue.

This is our plastic future.

Oil industry is spending billions on increasing plastics production
Think we are cutting back? They are just getting started, and we are going to be buried in the stuff.

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