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WIRED: A Surge of New Plastic Is About to Hit the Planet

Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Saudi Aramco are ramping up output of plastic — which is made from oil and gas, and their byproducts — to hedge against the possibility that a serious global response to climate change might reduce demand for their fuels, analysts say.

SCIENCE: 01.20.2020 10:00 AM

As public concern about plastic pollution rises, consumers are reaching for canvas bags, metal straws, and reusable water bottles. But while individuals fret over images of oceanic garbage gyres, the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries are pouring billions of dollars into new plants intended to make millions more tons of plastic than they now pump out.

Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Saudi Aramco are ramping up output of plastic — which is made from oil and gas, and their byproducts — to hedge against the possibility that a serious global response to climate change might reduce demand for their fuels, analysts say. Petrochemicals, the category that includes plastic, now account for 14 percent of oil use, and are expected to drive half of oil demand growth between now and 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says. The World Economic Forum predicts plastic production will double in the next 20 years.

“In the context of a world trying to shift off of fossil fuels as an energy source, this is where [oil and gas companies] see the growth,” said Steven Feit, a staff attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, an advocacy group.

America’s petrochemical hub has historically been the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, with a stretch along the lower Mississippi River dubbed “Cancer Alley” because of the impact of toxic emissions . Producers are expanding their footprint there with a slew of new projects, and proposals for more. They are also seeking to create a new plastics corridor in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, where fracking wells are rich in ethane.

Shell is building a $6 billion ethane cracking plant — a facility that turns ethane into ethylene, a building block for many kinds of plastic — in Monaca, Pennsylvania, 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. It is expected to produce up 1.6 million tons of plastic annually after it opens in the early 2020s. It’s just the highest profile piece of what the industry hails as a “renaissance in U.S. plastics manufacturing,” whose output goes not only into packaging and single-use items such as cutlery, bottles, and bags, but also longer-lasting uses like construction materials and parts for cars and airplanes.

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This story originally appeared on Yale Environment360 and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

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