A Surge of New Plastic Is About to Hit the Planet

A world awash in plastic will soon get slammed by more, as major oil companies ramp up their production.

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.

And because the American fracking boom is unearthing, along with natural gas, large amounts of the plastic feedstock ethane, the United States is a big growth area for plastic production. With natural gas prices low, many fracking operations are losing money, so producers have been eager to find a use for the ethane they get as a byproduct of drilling.

“They’re looking for a way to monetize it,“ Feit said. “You can think of plastic as a kind of subsidy for fracking.”

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.

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