600 Million Metric Tons of Plastic May Fill Oceans by 2036 If We Don’t Act Now

Yves here. Even with Jerri off to greener pastures, we’re still keeping an eye on her “war on plastic” beat. But in a way, this post shows how, just like Green New Dealers, some concerned environmental advocates aren’t approaching the plastic problem at the right level. The top priority must be to greatly lower use, starting with packaging. Jerri who spent a lot of time in India, pointed out how there was vastly less use of plastic. Shoppers would use mesh bags, including for different vegetables, and would carry collapsable metal cups for buying hot and cold drinks.

In fairness, this article does highlight that the fossil fuel industry sees s the petrochemical industry in general, and plastics in particular, as a way to increase the life of what would otherwise be stranded reserves. And it also has good detail on some of the production factors.

I hope readers can provide an assessment on claims about improved plastic recycling technologies. My understanding is that colored plastics can’t, or at least can’t affordably be used for much. If that is still so, it’s a disgrace that activists haven’t long pursued easy wins, like pressuring consumer goods giants like Proctor & Gamble to abandon colored plastic for clear or white plastic with colored labels, and also educating consumers to avoid brands in colored plastic containers when they have a choice.

By Tina Casey, who has been writing about sustainability, the global energy transition, and related matters since 2009. She is a regular contributor to CleanTechnica and TriplePundit, where she also focuses on corporate social responsibility and social issues. Originally published at Truthout. Produced in partnership with Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute

As the private transportation sector shifts focus to batteries, biofuels, and green hydrogen, fossil fuel stakeholders have been seeking new avenues of revenue in the petrochemical industry in general, and in plastics in particular. That’s bad news for a world already swimming—literally—in plastic pollution. Product manufacturers and other upstream forces could reverse the petrochemical trend, but only if they—along with policymakers, voters, and consumers—continue to push for real change beyond the business-as-usual strategy of only advocating for post-consumer recycling.

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere

Some signs of change are beginning to emerge. Public awareness is growing over the plastic pollution crisis, including the area of microplastics. A study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund in 2020 found 86 percent of consumers in the United States were willing to support measures to cut down on plastic pollution, such as single-use plastic bag bans and increased recycling. Private sector efforts to reduce plastic packaging are also beginning to take effect.

However, these trends won’t necessarily lead to a global slowdown in plastic production or use, let alone a reversal. The United States, for example, is both a leading producer of plastic and the largest source of plastic waste in the world. The OECD estimates that, under a “business-as-usual” scenario, plastic waste will triple globally by 2060. Petrochemical producers are also eyeing growing markets in Asia and Africa.

Even if some nations kick the plastic habit, the global benefit of their efforts could easily be offset by rising demand for plastics elsewhere in the world. In a 2016 report titled, “The New Plastics Economy,” the World Economic Forum (WEF) noted that global plastic production totaled 311 million metric tons in 2014, up from just 15 million metric tons in 1964. The WEF also anticipated that the total plastic production would double to more than 600 million metric tons by 2036.

One key driver that is fueling plastic production is the increased availability of low-cost natural gas in the U.S., which was a result of the George W. Bush administration’s successful efforts to lift Clean Water Act protections on shale gas operations, resulting in “billions of gallons of toxic frack fluid from being regulated as industrial waste,” according to Greenpeace USA. By 2018, the shale gas boom of the early 2000s was credited with stimulating a decade-long petrochemical buildout in the U.S. totaling 333 chemical industry projects since 2010, with a cumulative value of $202.4 billion. Of interest from a global perspective, almost 70 percent of the financing was from direct or indirect foreign sources.

Another driving force on the supply side is the shift from crude oil (petrol) to oil for plastic production, a trend fostered in part by a glut of ethane produced by the fracking boom. The decarbonization of the transportation sector does not necessarily slow down crude oil production to refineries. “As traditional demands for oil—vehicle fuels—are declining as the transport sector is increasingly electrified, the oil industry is seeing plastics as a key output that can make up for losses in other markets,” noted a November 2021 article in the Conversation. Consequently, refiners are becoming more dependent on the petrochemical market.

Steppingstone to Change: Recycling

The impacts of plastic production and waste are already manifold, from the local destruction and greenhouse gas emissions caused by oil and gas drilling and refinery operations to the ever-increasing load of plastic waste in the environment including microparticles in the air, water, soil, food supply, and ultimately in the human body.

Plastic is also a major threat to wildlife, and in particular, marine species, as so much plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans. Unless we take concrete steps and “change how we produce, use and dispose of plastic, the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems could nearly triple from 9-14 million… [metric tons] per year in 2016 to a projected 23-37 million… [metric tons] per year by 2040,” according to the United Nations Environment Program.

Fossil energy stakeholders have long touted a downstream solution to reduce plastic pollution—namely, recycling. The generations-long failure of this strategy is all too obvious: As the United Nations Environment Program points out, “Of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally so far [since the 1950s], less than 10 per cent has been recycled.” Despite recent advances in recycling technology, the amount of recycled plastic in the production stream mostly remains pitifully low across the world. Nations with lax environmental regulations—mainly poor countries—have become destinations for mountains of mismanaged plastic waste, in addition to bearing the weight of pollution related to plastic processing.

Recycling is still important, but the resolution of the plastic crisis requires swift and practical action several steps upstream, at the seats of source and demand.

Seeds of Change

Absent the political will to turn off the plastic spigot at the source, the task is left to supply chain stakeholders and individual consumers.

That is a monumental task, but not an insurmountable one. The rapid evolution of the renewable energy industry illustrates how the global economy can pivot into new models when bottom-line benefits are at play, along with policy goals and support from voters, consumers, and industry stakeholders.

In terms of reducing upstream consumption of petrochemicals, consumer sentiment can influence supply chain decisions, as demonstrated by three emerging trends that can drive the market for more sustainable products and packaging.

One trend is the growing level of public awareness of the ocean plastic crisis. Images of plastic-entangled turtles and other sea creatures can spark an emotional charge that gets more attention from consumers than street litter and landfills. The tourism, hospitality, and fishing industries are also among other stakeholders that have a direct interest in driving public awareness of ocean plastic.

In a related development, the public awareness factor has rippled into the activist investor movement, which is beginning to focus attention on the financial chain behind the petrochemical industry. In 2020 the organization Portfolio.earth, for example, launched a campaign on the role of banks in financing petrochemical operations.

The second trend that is gaining momentum is related to new recycling technology that enables manufacturers to replace virgin plastics with waste harvested from the ocean. However, this circular economy model must be implemented from cradle to grave and back again in order to prevent waste from ending up in the ocean, regardless of its content.

In a similar problem-solving vein, new technology for recycling carbon gas can provide manufacturers with new opportunities to build customer loyalty through climate action. The company LanzaTech provides a good example of growth in the area of recycling carbon. The company’s proprietary microbes are engineered to digest industrial waste gases or biogas. The process yields chemical building blocks for plastics as well as fuels. Other firms in this area are also harvesting ambient carbon from the air to produce plastics and synthetic fabrics, among other materials.

A third trend is the emergence of new technology that enables manufacturers to incorporate more recycled plastic into their supply chains overall. In the past, bottles and other products made from recycled plastics failed to meet durability expectations. Now manufacturers are beginning to choose from a new generation of recycled plastics that perform as well as, or better than, their virgin counterparts.

The problem is that all of these trends are only just starting to emerge as significant forces for change. In the meantime, fossil energy stakeholders have no meaningful incentive to pivot toward supporting a transition out of petrochemicals, let alone a rapid one.

In fact, for some legacy stakeholders, the renewable energy field appears to be an exercise in greenwashing. Shell is one example of an energy company that touts its wind and solar interests while expanding its petrochemical activities. An even more egregious example is ExxonMobil, which continues to publicize its long-running pursuit of algae biofuel, an area that is still years away from commercial development.

Until policymakers, voters, and consumers exercise their muscle to reduce plastic pollution at the source, the petrochemical industry will continue feeding the global plastic dependence regardless of the consequences for public health and planetary well-being.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Carla

    Jerri-Lynn Scofield’s posts and comments on plastics waste taught me so much. Thank you, Yves, for posting this article and for your remarks. I look forward to the commentariat’s contributions on the topic.

  2. Eclair

    Bulk food sections, not only of organic-type coop groceries, but also of the smaller, more forward-looking chains (e.g., Wegman’s ,) were blossoming. Some even allowed customers to bring their own containers. But, alas, CoVid intervened and with an excess of caution (those CoVid viruses might be lurking on your dried black beans) stores slimmed down or eliminated entirely, their bulk food sections. Lots of those rigid, clear plastic containers, filled with nuts, dried fruits, etc., have appeared.

    And detergents! Whose idea was it to make liquid detergent, thus transporting tons of water around the country? What was wrong with the old, lighter, powered type? Which, by the way, has reappeared in a trendy new guise: little single-use sachets, wrapped in a ‘dissolvable’ plastic and packed in a heavy-weight plastic bag. Cause we’re all too dumb to measure out a quarter-cup of loose powder into our washing machines?

    And, slightly off-topic, regard those washing machines! (And dryers!) I occasionally think of life without them and shudder at the time and human energy it would take to wash clothing and bedding and towels each week. Suddenly, grubby would become the new chic.

    Fossil fuels are embedded into every part of our ‘civilized’ life. We could lose it in an instant.

    1. Mike

      Great point on the detergents, I had gotten back to powder on the dishwasher but didn’t think of that with the clothes washer.

    2. vao

      In supermarkets, bio fruits and vegetables seem to be packaged and labelled in significantly more plastic than equivalent non-bio products.

      I do not know how widespread this is, or whether retailers where I live have peculiar policies regarding bio vs. non-bio groceries. I interpret that systematic plastic wrapping as a trick to prevent people from buying bio under the guise of cheaper non-bio products.

    3. Lexx

      Words of wisdom from Uland. Uland is our favorite appliance repairman. The problem with powder in washing machines and dishwashers is as you suspect, users are too (fill in your own answer) to fill with soap properly, leading to clogged machines… and a call to Uland’s employer follows, for those who would look at repairing the machine rather than replacing it. He says the users are failing to take into account that today’s machines are more efficient, low water types. It takes less, not more soap to clean the load, over a longer cycle where really the water and heat do most of the work (in dishwashers).

      I was using those combination pods (powder and liquid) and ceased immediately, going back to a small amount of Cascade. Likewise the washing machine, dribbling in liquid detergent measured in spoons rather than cups. Also more inclined to do loads on the 18 minute cycle, because what I really want is remove any stinky skin-scaly old people body odors (ours!) and just freshen them up a bit. There the problem is users cleaning with excess soap in cold water that doesn’t completely dissolve.

      High on the list of lessons learned from Covid, as I took to doing more and more in the kitchen from scratch, is how time intensive it all is. Last night Husband brought in the last load of smoked ham hocks and I stood there thinking about how I going to get those too in to our packed freezers. I said something to that effect to him and he replied that were those who looking at our two refrigerators with freezers and an additional upright would still say we were unprepared for something or other… and then there were those who might wonder what medical code best describes our particular form of mental illness. Lose/lose. It’s at moments like that I grok deeply, then pin a bow on something delicious and trot over to a neighbor’s house… effectively signaling we suffer excess in our pantries come The Jackpot and will be ripe for robbing and plundering. And probably kill us because who needs that loose end staggering about the countryside and pointing fingers?

      But today it’s about the base of a nice warm pot of soup as the weather turns colder, and gratitude for good neighborly relations who will take a meaty freshly smoked hock off my hands.

  3. Rita

    I have replaced plastic bags with tulle bags. They are lightweight, easily washed, and fit into small pockets. The only downside is that they are not waterproof.

  4. Mike

    “ Until policymakers, voters, and consumers exercise their muscle to reduce plastic pollution at the source”

    I wish that was the entire premise of the article, recycling is not a solution only minor risk mitigation.

    The environmental crisis has tested my beliefs more than anything else in my life. I am at heart a libertarian through and through. However I understand that market place solutions do not provide the level of constraint needed and that pure regulation limiting production or banning plastic in certain uses is a much better solution.

    Long forgotten it seems is the “reduce, reuse, recycle” where recycling is only one step above landfilling the waste. We might as well be burning the plastic for energy at this point.

    Planet money has a great podcast episode on a concerted industry wide push by big oil in the 80s and 90s to market plastic as recyclable. That was before they even knew what we could do with it (if anything). It went as far as TV commercials as well as putting the recycling symbol on plastic prior to being able to back that claim up. The result was successful and created a nation wide push on recyclers to accept plastic even though they had no destination for the waste.


    I’m glad people continue to talk about this Dr. Shanna Swan’s work on male fertility scares the hell out of me. I think of her work every time I change my 7 month old sons diaper.

    1. Chris Wilbert

      Oil/plastics/chemical industry is still trying to knock out the line that they can recycle plastics, with pyrolysis being the latest . The major block, as many people point out, is the sheer diversity of different plastics often in the same product or packaging (colour is not the main factor):

      Pyrolysis “The process is superficially simple: using high temperatures in the absence of oxygen to break down plastics into a mixture of smaller molecules known as pyrolysis oil.” But the different kinds of plastic make this far from simple, and unless plastics manufacturers and product makers all started using the same plastics (unlikely in the extreme) then this is not going to work.

      Plastic needs to be stopped at source, use less, not personally but locally and globally.

  5. NoFreeWill

    It should be noted the major problem with recycling plastics is the labor involved in separating all the myriad types (the # on the bottom inside the logo that lies to you that this type is recyclable) and noone being willing to pay for it. If we cost in that labor most recycled plastic is far more expensive. From an industrial design perspective the main reason we are cautioned against recycling plastic is structural integrity… unless it’s very high grade recycled plastic it is often weaker and has other problems. Of the 6-10 extremely common types of plastic something like 2 or 3 can be recycled effectively. We in design are also being told by a trendy book to adopt a “circular economy” in which production and waste disposal would be coordinated. This is a great idea, but would in effect require a socialist planned economy and an entire reorganization of our economy on ecological economics/industrial ecology grounds, but nowhere in the book is this obstacle, or what needs to be done to solve it (organize a broad based revolutionary workers party?) mentioned. This is what ignorance of history, political economy, and general common sense have lead to, where “green” products are affordable only for the rich and waste/emissions in the production process is merely massaged by individual corporations to make them look better.

    If Capitalism can’t even solve a basic problem like recycling, when REDUCE is the first and most important factor, maybe we need to abandon such a poorly designed economic system.

    1. Anthony G Stegman

      Imagine if the majority of external costs were instead redirected back to the originator. Profits would fall significantly. That can’t be allowed in a capitalist economy. In California where I live it is very difficult to recycle bottles and cans. There is no requirement for vendors to take back the empties, so those who wish to recycle and get their deposit back have to schlep to the very few recycling centers that remain and wait in line for hours; all to get $15 or $20 back. Most people won’t bother.

  6. Anthony G Stegman

    Grocery store chains use large amounts of plastic for so many things. Some brands of beer have plastic rings holding the 6-pack together. At Costco bread comes in two loves double bagged. All of this is done for ease of handling. The plastic pollution that is generated is an external cost, so there is zero motivation to change the way these businesses operate. Expecting consumers to make a difference is foolish. Only policy and new laws can make a dent in the plastics problem. Good luck with that.

Comments are closed.