New English edition of Plastic Atlas spotlights humanity’s toxic addiction

Published jointly by Break Free From Plastic, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and the German Association for the Environment and Nature (BUND), the new report portrays a startling window into the toxic deluge fouling our planet. In just 60 years over 8.3 billion tons of petroleum-based plastics have been produced worldwide – more than one ton per person living on earth today. But only 10% has been recycled. As new production rates are accelerated by cheap fracked gas, the only solution is to drastically reduce our dependency. Buchsbaum reviews the Atlas’ findings.

Copyright, Shutterstock, Igor Stevanovic, Montage

Plastic Planet

Plastic. You’re using, wearing, and touching some sort of plastic right now. And no matter how much you try to avoid it, we now know that tiny micro-plastics are fouling our air, contaminating our water and soils and accumulating in our very bodies. Despite pledges from producers to reduce packaging or introduce more recyclable types of plastics, it’s piling up at unmanageable rates, spilling into and contaminating  all ecosystems, worldwide.

Plastic Atlas 2019 is an essential resource for understanding the fundament link between oil companies, our throw-away society and today’s climate and biodiversity crisis. Plastic has become ubiquitous after the Second World War.  In the decades since, it has become an omnipresent aspect of our modernity. “Plastic is now everywhere. No matter where scientists go looking for plastic, they find it—at the farthest reaches of the earth.”

The vehicle for globalization, the new English edition of the Atlas terms plastic as the “epitome of unregulated late stage capitalism—a system that externalizes costs to people and the environment for the sake of profit.”

Already, disposable products and packaging account for the majority of the growing pile of plastic waste worldwide. But the pollution nightmare’s volume of production is accelerating. Fully half of all plastics that exist today were only produced after 2005 as fracking has unleashed a gusher of cheaper petroleum.

And even as the world struggles to handle this flood of waste, industry plans to increase plastic production by 40 percent over the next decade.

Drowning in packaging

A newly published report shows that Germany consumed a record 18.7 million tons of packaging in 2017. Based upon data from the Federal Environmental Agency (UBA), this is a 3% increase over 2018 and equates to 107 kilograms (236 pounds) per person in households. In 2018, the Atlas reported over 1.13 trillion items of packaging, most of them plastic, were used for food and drinks within the EU alone!

Indeed, even for the conscious citizen, according to the Atlas “consuming plastic has become so unavoidable that to actually live without it requires a certain amount of access and privilege enjoyed by very few in the world.”

Trapped in an unrelenting cycle of purchase, use and disposal – unlike any other manmade product – “Plastic pollutes at every stage of its lifecycle from when the oil and gas is extracted to produce it,
all the way to the end-of-life where plastic waste is littered, landfilled, downcycled, burned.”

Who profits?

Plastic manufacturing, according to the Atlas, is tightly controlled by only a handful of multination corporations who today are poised to globally invest “over 200 billion US dollars in additional capacity to produce even more petrochemicals, the majority of which will be turned into more plastics.”

Fueled by shale gas from the United States, the Atlas reports that companies like Ineos – Europe’s biggest plastic’s producer, and others plan to build or expand more than 300 new production facilities “in hopes of adding some 40 percent more plastic to the global economy by 2025”. Without question, the biggest historical plastics packager: Coca-Cola.

Plastic’s role in the energy transition

In climate policy, attention is largely focused on the transition to renewable energy and cleaner transport. But industry is equally important: the Atlas reports it accounted for 30 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2010.

The production of plastics is one of the largest and fastest-growing contributors to these emissions. Plastics, along with many fertilizers, pesticides and synthetic fibers, are petrochemicals, derived from mineral oil and natural gas. The Atlas cites statistics that more than 99 percent of plastics come from such fossil-fuel feedstock.

As plastic production grows, it will also lock in new fossil-fuel infrastructure and increase emissions from ever more exploration, extraction, transportation and refinement.

Blame Shifting

The majority of plastic is produced and consumed in four main regions: Northeast Asia, North America, the Middle East and Western Europe. Consequently, the four biggest exporters of plastic waste are the US, Japan, Germany and the UK.

Where to ship that waste has become a catastrophically growing problem now that China—which for years has recycled the majority of the world’s plastic—has stopped accepting any additional volumes. Too complex an issue for this blog, the Atlas covers it in great detail. However, suffice it to say that as other nations attempt to fill in China’s void, most of what they are receiving is almost impossible to recycle.

Masters in lobbying, petrochemicals firms and plastic producers focus attention on waste management and recycling so that they can evade their responsibilities for the true problem: the growth in the volume of plastics being made.

However, it’s clear that the current recycling systems cannot cope with such volumes of waste. A glance into history shows this: only ten percent of the more than nine billion tonnes of plastics that have been produced since the 1950s have been recycled.

40 percent of plastic products are garbage after less than a month. This continuously growing mountain of plastic waste causes serious environmental problems. And regardless, recycling is only the second-best option to reduce it.

Break Free

In 2025, plastic production is expected to reach over 600 million tonnes per year.

The rising costs of plastic waste are forcing governments to take action. Cities and countries are imposing bans, fees and other restrictions on single-use packaging in an effort to force producers to change their business practices. The world is starting to understand that we cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution: we simply need to make less of it.

Grassroots and environmental organizations around the world have started coming together to expose and confront the plastics industries. Since its launch in 2016, a global movement called Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) has united more than 1,500 organizations and thousands of supporters across six continents. They are trying to put an end to plastic pollution by demanding massive reductions in the production and use of fossil-fuel-based plastics.

The Atlas’s proffered solution is easy to state but hotly contested: just don’t produce so much plastic in the first place.

Need more convincing? Read the Atlas!



L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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