Suffocating the oceans with plastics

 By Andrew Burger

Worldwide production of plastics is set to surge 40 percent higher in the next decade even as scientists warn of the mounting costs and damages to ecosystems and human health they are bound to cause, particularly in the oceans…

All told, more than $180 billion is being invested in building new petroleum “cracking” plants that will manufacture the wide variety of plastic raw materials used throughout economies and societies worldwide.
Investments by the world’s largest plastics producers lie behind expectations of surging production capacity. In sum, the amount of plastic produced in a year is roughly the same as the entire weight of humanity, The Guardian highlights in an accompanying graphic.
The sharp increase in plastics production capacity comes at a time when scientists continue to warn of the increasing likelihood that plastics pollution will result in permanent ecological contamination. Media reporting and public awareness of plastics pollution is on the rise, particularly in the wake of the discovery of massive oceanic plastic “garbage patches” circulating in the Pacific and other world oceans. That, in turn, has elevated the issue of plastics pollution in politics and at local, national and international levels of government.

Just one word: plastics

National governments taking part in the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) – 193 of them – in early December signed a resolution to eliminate plastics pollution in the sea. The agreement is seen as paving the way towards a legally binding international treaty.
Unknown in nature, plastics products really only began to be manufactured and used widely in the post-WW II era, a phenomenon immortalized in the 1959 film classic, “The Graduate.” Characteristic of the history of the oil and gas industry and market, it was a glut, rather than scarcity, of petroleum and a lack of uses for it that led multinational oil and gas majors and chemical manufacturers to employ organic chemists and task them with creating new petroleum-based products.

A dolphin swims carrying a plastic bag with its flipper (Jedimentat44, Flickr)

Unfortunately, no one ever seemed overly concerned about the fact that all those plastic products were alien to Mother Nature. Unrecognizable and indigestible to the natural cycles of use, disposal, degradation and recycling, humans, and the terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems and natural resources that support all life on the planet, are literally choking on oil and plastics, ecologist, author and university professor David Suzuki exclaimed in a May 2017 blog post.
Eight million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans every year. There will be more plastic in the sea than fish come 2050 if current rates of ocean dumping continue, according to UNEP. Scientists warn that all that plastic waste is killing marine life and entering our food chains, posing clear and present dangers to human health.

A global agreement to eliminate ocean plastics pollution

The Norwegian government initiated the UNEP resolution banning oceanic plastic pollution. Norway’s environment minister Vidar Helgesen told Reuters it contains very strong language.
“We now have an agreement to explore a legally binding instrument and other measures and that will be done at the international level over the next 18 months,” he was quoted as saying.
Helgesen highlighted the extent and degree to which oceanic plastic waste is invading food webs and killing marine fauna. “We found micro plastics inside mussels, which is something we like to eat. In January this year, a fairly rare species of whale was stranded on a beach because of exhaustion and they simply had to kill it. In its tummy they found 30 plastic bags.
How national governments expect to implement the ban on ocean plastic pollution, much less penalize transgressors, is the billion-dollar question. UNEP secretary general Erik Solheim would like to see governments ban and redesign product packaging, according to Reuters’ report. It’s private businesses – primarily multinational, as well as some state-owned, fossil fuel corporations – that produce plastics, and they’re gearing up to produce a lot more.
However, some major international oil and gas corporations, including Eni, are searching for solutions to the fast growing problem of plastics pollution as well. Eni owns Versalis, one of the world’s largest chemicals manufacturing corporations.


The Eni Versalis headquarters

Green chemistry

Some 40 chemists and supporting technicians and other employees working in Versalis’ green chemistry division are striving to make scientific and engineering breakthroughs that can pave the way to sustainable plastics manufacturing, use, disposal, reuse and recycling.
As Eniday’s Nicholas Newman highlights in a recent feature article, among its growing list of promising green plastics prospects, Versalis is developing a commercial portfolio based on the introduction of a new generation of plastic elastomers used in car and truck tires that minimize fuel consumption. These products use less in the way of natural resources and minimize waste without sacrificing safety attributes.
Eni and Versalis are working towards developing sustainable plastics, as well as other petroleum-based and natural gas-fueled production, in other ways. The two corporations signed an memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Economic Development that will see €200 million ($250.25 million) invested to transform the aging Porto Marghera petrochemical complex in Venice into an “integrated green chemical hub.”
The green refinery project at Porto Marghera is the first in the world to transform a conventional oil refinery into a bio-refinery, one that converts organic raw materials into high-quality biofuels. The plant produces green diesel, green naphtha, LPG and work is under way to produce bio-jet fuel as well. Palm oil is the feedstock at present, but that’s increasingly controversial given the massive deforestation, natural ecosystems destruction, greenhouse gas emissions and massive peat fires that have resulted from clearing land and cultivating palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia. Eni and Versalis intend to switch feedstocks from palm oil to biomass.
The development of a new biofuel production process known as Ecofining used at Porto Marghera has led Eni and Versalis to attempt to produce biodiesel for the Italian navy’s offshore patrol vessel Foscari, the first example of its kind in the world.

READ MORE: Boyan Slat, the plastic hunter by Veronica Guin

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.