This Is Plastics: Without Plastics, Developing Countries Would Face Further Challenges


Without Plastics, Developing Countries Would Face Further Challenges

A recent report repeats generalities and falsehoods about single-use plastics while ignoring the benefits of plastics and technologies crucial to creating a circular economy, through private funding by the Minderoo Foundation.


The United States is one of the largest manufacturing powerhouses in the world thanks in large part to the plastics industry, which is responsible for over one million jobs and over $468 billion in shipments of plastics products annually. With a growing sector this large, the plastics industry is incredibly conscious of the importance of its products and their life-cycle.

For decades, industry has invested in innovations and advanced solutions to increase recycling rates and ensure that all plastics stay in the economy and out of the environment. A report recently released by the Australian Minderoo Foundation claims to “examine the source of the single-use plastics crisis” but fails to consider the efforts made to combat global waste challenges and the critical role plastics must play in improving environmental outcomes.

This report makes its public purpose clear from the beginning: to end the production of single-use plastics from virgin resin. In its stated purpose, the report remains partial and biased, and relies upon modeling data to calculate how much plastic waste the plastic industry produces. In its attempts to attack the plastics industry, the report turns a blind eye to the unparalleled benefits and performance of plastics, as well as the technologies that are crucial to creating a global circular economy.

The report misses the mark on several key points:

U.S. industry is critical to making improvements in global waste management

Though the report levels attacks at industry over plastic waste, it fails to mention the number of industry partnerships and collaborations that have enhanced waste management and recycling systems both in the United States and throughout the developing world to ensure that less plastic is thrown away. In late 2020, the U.S. Development Finance Corporation announced a $2.5 billion Ocean Plastics Initiative aimed at improving infrastructure to reduce plastic waste in oceans and waterways. This fund focuses on developing countries, where lack of regulations and weak waste and recycling systems let close to 90% of plastics leak into the environment each year.

In December 2022, ExxonMobil, a founding member of the public-private partnership Houston Recycling Collaboration, announced the successful launch of its newly constructed advanced recycling facility in Baytown, Texas. As one of the largest in North America, the facility is capable of processing more than 80 million pounds of plastic waste per year. The company plans to extend these efforts across the globe to areas like Belgium, the Netherlands, Singapore and Canada as part of its goal to establish a total annual processing capacity of 1 billion pounds of plastic waste by 2026. Additionally, they have partnered with third parties to support more robust plastic waste collection and waste management practices in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Nearly 50 major global companies formed the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which has committed more than $1 billion with the goal of investing $1.5 billion over the next five years in developing countries to deploy scaled solutions that better manage plastics and increase recycling rates. These are the solutions we need to ensure that no piece of plastic ends up in the environment.

Plastics are vital to the developing world

The report also ignores how plastics’ versatility helps the developing world gain access to better and longer-lasting food products, offers cheaper and more durable building materials, and reduces emissions to help reach clean energy goals. Plastics are a more affordable, lighter alternative to traditional materials like glass and metal, making them more financially accessible and lighter to transport between purchase location and home for those who live further away from city centers.

With collaboration and investment, industry will continue to work to create better recycling and waste systems in the developing world. However, blaming a single entity for the whole of a global problem is not a solution.

Alternatives to plastics are less sustainable

The report states that the “focus needs to be on producing recycled polymers from plastic waste, on re-use and on alternative substitute materials.” Of note, industry has already made strides to encourage and invest in the reuse and recycling of plastics products to ensure a circular economy is within reach. However, any suggestion that common plastics substitutes like paper, glass, and aluminum are better for the environment is false. In fact, replacing single-use plastics with alternative packaging would result in environmental costs four times greater than currently exist.

According to an October 2020 report by Shelie Miller, Director of the Program in the Environment for the University of Michigan, reusable alternatives actually require more material than single-use options and generally use more energy to produce. Reusable products are rarely reused enough to offset the environmental impact created by the additional materials and the energy required to make them.

U.S. companies take responsibility for plastic products

While the United States is home to a robust plastics manufacturing sector, many forget the competitive recycling and recovery rates of post-consumer materials in North America. In the United States, less than 3% of plastic is mismanaged, and in Canada, that number is only 1%. This is due to complex and responsible waste management and recycling systems that ensure that all plastic stays out of our waterways and environment.

Unfortunately, this is not true for all plastics producers across the globe. In countries that lack the infrastructure and policies needed to properly manage plastics, like China and Saudi Arabia, product waste is more likely to end up in the environment. Recovery rates in Asia, for example, are inverted to those in North America. According to a report by the United Nations, the largest ten rivers in Asia are responsible for 90% of global plastic waste flows entering the ocean. The lack of infrastructure and policies available to ensure that plastics can be recovered and reused in those areas are to blame for this level of pollution.

Not all policies are created equal

The Minderoo report also calls for further regulations and policies against the plastics industry, while simultaneously applauding advanced recycling investments which the plastics industry has made in an effort to increase recycling rates and ensure that all plastics are able to be recycled.

The report ignores that there are already considerable efforts in the United States to regulate the industry in a harmful way. Contrary to its name, the proposed Protecting Communities from Plastic Act—likely to be reintroduced in the 118th Congress—actually harms communities by calling for a moratorium on permits for new plastics production and advanced recycling facilities that are critical to ensuring all plastic waste can be recycled, not wasted. Additionally, the Biden administration has made several moves to limit the federal government’s use of single-use plastics, without offering a suggested substitute material,  potentially offering a more environmentally unfriendly alternative.

As governments around the world work together to tackle plastic waste, it is important that policies encourage, not stifle, investment in important innovations like advanced recycling technologies. In the United States, the plastics industry is already stepping up to ensure that products never end up in the environment. These efforts are also being expanded abroad, where waste management policy frameworks could, and should, be strengthened. To support these efforts, global leaders must come to the negotiating table ready to acknowledge the essential role plastics play in providing health, safety, protection and well-being in our societies.

The blame game has already proven ineffective. What we need is real, actionable and collaborative change that brings together all stakeholders—industry, governments and non-profit organizations alike—to work together to ban pollution, not plastic.

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