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Twenty firms responsible for over half of all global single-use plastic waste

A plastic-polluted river in Tamil Nadu. Image credit: Ð Ñ–ÐºÑ‚Ð¾Ñ€Ñ Ð†Ð²Ð°Ð½ÐµÑ†ÑŒ / 123rf
A plastic-polluted river in Tamil Nadu. Image credit: Ð Ñ–ÐºÑ‚Ð¾Ñ€Ñ Ð†Ð²Ð°Ð½ÐµÑ†ÑŒ / 123rf

New research has revealed for the first time that just twenty companies are responsible for producing more than half of all the single-use plastic waste in the world. This marks an enormous contribution to the vast majority of the plastics pollutants in landfills, oceans, and the environment in general.

The comprehensive new analysis published by the Plastic Waste Makers index revealed that this small number of state-owned and multinational corporate businesses are responsible for 55 percent of the global plastic waste footprint. There are notable names amongst the analysis top polluting companies with ExxonMobil and Dow – both based in the USA – topping the list, followed by China-based Sinopec. Collectively, these three companies alone account for sixteen percent of global single-use plastic waste. 

The study notes economic backing for much of the pollution stems from “institutional asset managers and global banks [who] are providing billions of dollars to companies that produce polymers from fossil fuels – as much as 100 times more than they provide to companies trying to shift to a circular economy. This asymmetry urgently needs to be reversed.”

Spotlighting plastic’s impact in India 

Globally, India as a country ranked third for ‘virgin’ polymer pollutants made from oil, gas, and coal. This translates to a staggering 5,582,000 tonnes of single-use plastic waste every year, with an estimated 4kg per capita per year. 

And while scientists have long sounded the alarm on the impact of plastic on a global scale, the scale of such pollution on national and local scales is now getting spotlighted through a range of studies. As recent as January, a study by the University of Plymouth published in Environmental Pollution investigated microplastic abundance in the river Ganga revealed and found that its flow could be responsible for up to three billion microplastic particles entering the Bay of Bengal every day.

Lead author of the study and National Geographic Explorer, Dr Imogen Napper, said “globally, it has been estimated that sixty billion pieces of plastic are discharged into the ocean from rivers worldwide each day. However, what has been lacking until now has been a detailed analysis of how microplastic concentrations vary along a river’s course. By working with local communities and partners, this expedition always aimed to help us stem the flow of plastic entering the Gangetic basin.”

This has since been built upon by research from other studies. Amongst the researchers working on outlines the scale of plastic pollution in the river Ganga is Stefan Krause, professor of Ecohydrology and Biogeochemistry at the University of Birmingham, who said “some twenty rivers are estimated to account for almost seventy percent of global plastic emissions to the marine environment. Of these, the Ganga River is second only to the Yangtze River.”

The impact of these critical findings is clear for those living localised to the flow with over 655 million inhabitants relying on the water the basin provides, highlighting that methods must be implemented to address what is widely understood to be a crisis requiring transformational change. 

Methods for addressing plastic pollution 

Methods for addressing the enormity of the challenge presented by plastic pollution will have to mirror the scale of what we face. Whilst the burgeoning prospect of bio-based plastics that leverage the capabilities of enzymes that can naturally break down plastics appear to pave a possible way for continuing to meet the demand for consumption, suggestions from the Plastic Waste Makers index allude to changes needing to be made elsewhere. 

Highlighting that it is an entrenched geopolitical problem, the authors of the study suggest that solving the single-use plastic problem will take more than the actions of progressive polymer producers or the influence of capital markets. They state that amongst an array of methods, “a Montreal Protocol or Paris Agreement-style treaty may be the only way to bring an end to plastic pollution worldwide. The treaty must address the problem at its source, with targets for the phasing out of fossil-fuel-based polymers and encouraging the development of a circular plastics economy.”

India’s methods for tackling plastic pollution 

India’s methods to address plastic pollution have seen Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduce a ‘Swachata Hi Seva’ (‘Cleanliness Is Service’) campaign in 2019, with freedom from single-use plastic as its core aim as previously reported by Health Issues India.  Heralded as ambitious by some, India – like most other major countries – still has a long way to go on tackling plastic pollution. Perhaps the Plastic Waste Makers index offers space for key takeaways on how to action progressive change. 


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