Over the past few years, the plastics industry has come under intense pressure due to public concerns about marine plastic waste, toxic pollution, and the climate crisis. One of the sharpest blows came during the wave of public outrage in 2017 and 2018 over media images of marine wildlife entangled in plastic, known as the “Attenborough effect” (after the airing of BBC’s Blue Planet II). Researchers and activists have repeatedly drawn attention to the toxic hazards across the plastics lifecycle, from extraction to refining, manufacturing, consumption, and disposal. The worst impacts of toxic plastic pollution are concentrated in disadvantaged frontline and fenceline communities, representing systematic global environmental injustice. Furthermore, plastics are a major contributor to global heating: 99% of plastics come from fossil fuels (via petrochemicals), and plastics account for 80% of petrochemical markets.
Yet the plastics crisis shows no signs of abating. The volumes of toxic plastic waste accumulating in oceans, cities, and other ecosystems are increasing at an alarming rate, and demand for plastics continues to rise. In fact, industry experts predict that plastics will be the biggest driver of oil demand during the energy transition.
Why is the global plastics crisis getting worse, despite increasing public awareness, activism, and regulations over plastic pollution? This question is at the heart of my new book, Plastic Unlimited: How Corporations are Fuelling the Ecological Crisis and What We Can Do About It. It is a work of public sociology, exploring themes of corporate responsibility, wilful ignorance, and environmental justice. The answer, in short, is in the subtitle.
The exponential growth of plastics in the post-war period was not the inevitable outcome of innovation, but rather from corporate advertising to find new markets for the tremendous petrochemical capacity that was developed during the war to make high-octane gasoline and synthetic rubber. The petrochemical and plastics industries created demand for new consumer markets for a wide range of household products, replacing glass, wood, metal, and cotton, and touting the advantages of plastics as cheap, flexible, and disposable.
Since the beginning of the plastics age, corporations have not only aggressively promoted their products, but they have actively denied responsibility for toxic harms. One of the most notorious examples is the vinyl chloride scandal in the 1960s and 1970s, when major petrochemical companies discovered and then conspired to hide scientific research linking toxic exposures to vinyl chloride with health effects including cancer and other illnesses. For decades, the industry has also manufactured doubt and uncertainty over the health risks of Bisphenol A, phthalates, and the PFAS “forever chemicals,” which have known carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting properties but are still widely used in consumer products.
In response to public criticism over plastic pollution, corporations have co-opted proposed “solutions”, for example in the case of recycling and the circular economy agenda. Since the 1980s, the plastics industry has supported recycling as a way of keeping production going, to erase the guilt of consumers of throwing things away (also known as “wishcycling”).
The circular economy is a sustainable business model which aims to keep materials in use for as long as possible, by “closing the loop” between production, consumption, and waste through the “Rs” of recycling, reuse, redesign, repair, and reduction. The problem is that it is not possible to close the loop by “decoupling” economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. There is no such thing as a closed system (e.g., recycling requires energy).
The industry promotes the weakest “R” in the circular economy— recycling— particularly “chemical recycling,” a controversial pilot technology which breaks down plastics to their molecular form, and which environmental activists have compared to incineration. Through promoting circular economy recycling solutions, industry casts itself as a green technological saviour, individual consumers can be blamed for failing to recycle, and production levels remain unchallenged.
Corporations have also blamed poor waste infrastructures in Asia and Africa for the problem of marine plastic pollution. This narrative fails to acknowledge the highly unequal trade in contaminated “recyclable” plastic waste, from high-income countries to low and middle-income countries, which many activists and scholars have called “waste colonialism”. However, damaging industry narratives have not gone unchallenged. In July 2022, the Ocean Conservancy issued a public apology to hundreds of environmental organizations and retracted its 2015 report Stemming the Tide, for the harm done by: 1) blaming countries in Southeast Asia for plastic pollution (as opposed to rich countries for over-production and consumption); and 2) promoting the “false solution” of waste incineration (toxic and greenhouse gas-emitting) to address the problem.
Top corporate polluters have increasingly been singled out by environmental activists as the ones who are responsible for the escalating plastics crisis. Why, then, do corporations continue their harmful practices? The first reason is the problem of societal dependence. Plastics are toxic and unsustainable, but they are also essential to modern life, not only in disposable straws and bags, but in medicine, clothing, buildings, computers, healthcare, and even electric vehicles and wind turbine blades. Given the extent of societal dependence, they are difficult to phase out, to separate what is essential and what is toxic, wasteful, and unsustainable.
The second reason is that perpetual economic growth is the dominant paradigm for corporations and governments around the world. Governments have a strong interest in supporting profitable markets, and they tend to restrict markets only in obvious cases of toxic harm, resulting in bans or regulations. However, these cases tend to be rare, and new plastics markets are opening all the time. Typically, new plastic markets are for “wants” rather than “needs,” promoted through corporate advertising. Time and again, corporations have fought to create new markets that they know are unsustainable, for example, flooding markets in South Asia with non-recyclable sachets, single-use small disposable packaged consumer products.
The third reason is the lack of legally binding regulations. Corporations cannot be trusted to voluntarily limit their own markets. The resolution calling for a new UN Plastics Treaty agreed in Nairobi this year was a landmark achievement towards addressing the full toxic lifecycle of plastics, but many activists argue that it will lack weight if it does not include a cap on plastic production.
The escalating plastics crisis is an existential planetary threat, which intersects with overlapping crises of global heating, biodiversity loss, and toxic pollution. There are things we can we do to tackle the plastics crisis, on multiple levels, such as campaigning for stronger regulations and raising public awareness. Exposing dominant societal myths about “essential” perpetual plastics growth is an important place to start.
Alice Mah is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on environmental justice, corporate power, and the politics of green industrial transformations, which are the subjects of her two most recent books: Plastic Unlimited: How Corporations are Fuelling the Ecological Crisis and What We Can Do About It (Polity, 2022) and Petrochemical Planet: Multiscalar Battles of Industrial Transformation (Duke University Press, forthcoming). She is also the author of Toxic Truths: Environmental Justice and Citizen Science in a Post-Truth Age (with Thom Davies, 2020), Port Cities and Global Legacies, and Industrial Ruination, Community, and Place, winner of the 2013 British Sociological Association Philip Abrams Memorial Prize.