Ocean Wave of Plastic
"Plastic Ocean," illustration by Bonnie Monteleone; used with permission.

Sibling Scourges: Plastics and Fossil Fuels

Nothing short of strong and enforceable bans will stem the rising tide of toxic plastics.

This is the third in a three-part series on plastic pollution. Part 1 of this series on plastics is here; Part 2 is here. Also see the related story, “What Can Be Recycled, What Can’t?”

In a 2020 U.S. public opinion survey commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, 86 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “We need to change our economy from one that throws things away to one that emphasizes reuse and recycling,” and 87 percent reported feeling “frustrated” or “very frustrated” that plastic waste from the United States ends up in the ocean. 

Many Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate, along with more than 400 U.S.-based environmental organizations (yet not a single Republican in either house), have pushed for what they see as a solution to the plastic problem in the form of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (H.R. 2238 and S. 984). It aims to reduce virgin, or new, plastic production, invest in better waste management methods for plastics, and support communities at risk from plastic pollution. 

Organizations like Break Free From Plastic, which is pushing for the elimination of new plastic production altogether, realize that it’s an inadequate bill. Clearly, nothing short of radical, enforceable bans will suffice.  But it’s still the strongest proposal currently pending in the U.S. Congress.

In the bill’s own official summary, it (our italics point to some of the bill’s weaknesses that essentially provide loopholes for polluters to pass through):

“makes certain producers of products (e.g., packaging, paper, single-use products, beverage containers, or food service products) fiscally responsible for collecting, managing, and recycling or composting the products after consumer use. [It] establishes minimum percentages of products that must be reused, recycled, or composted; and an increasing percentage of recycled content that must be contained in beverage containers. 

“[The bill] sets forth provisions to encourage the reduction of single-use products, including by establishing programs to refund consumers for returning beverage containers and by establishing a tax on carryout bags. 

“The bill creates a temporary moratorium [three years] on new or expanded permits for certain facilities that manufacture plastics until regulations are updated to address pollution from the facilities. 

“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must publish guidelines for a national standardized labeling system for recycling and composting receptacles. Producers must include labels … that … indicate whether the products are recyclable, compostable, or reusable. …

“Finally, the bill establishes limitations on the export of plastic waste to other countries.”

Representative of California’s 47th district Alan Lowenthal, primary sponsor of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act in the House (Jeff Merkley of Oregon is his counterpart in the Senate), says that it is vital that the U.S. quickly adopt the bill and begin to end our addiction to plastic.

“We are on a precipice, and we are running out of time to deal with this crisis of our own creation before it reaches a point of no return,” he wrote in announcing the bill. “As a major exporter of plastics waste, our nation has a responsibility and a duty to act now and act decisively.”

Under capitalism, the mindset of both nongovernmental organization leaders and legislators seems stuck in the idea that voluntary behavior changes by both industry and individuals, along with “marketplace” solutions, will fix the plastic problem (and others) — despite more than a century’s worth of evidence to the contrary.

The biggest opponents of regulations on global toxic and persistent chemicals in microplastics are, of course, the biggest polluters as well as some of the most powerful lobbyists: the fossil fuel and chemical corporations including BASF, ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Ineos, BP, and Shell. Their “war to protect plastics” has been ongoing since the 1980s and has only intensified.

Ocean Plastics Leadership Network founder Dave Ford says that in recent years some plastics manufacturers have made progress in reducing their impact, but clearly they have not gone far enough.

Ford describes this impasse — which is, as are so many others, between corporate capitalists and those fighting to retain a habitable planet — as a “fault line” that may never be crossed. “We need to bring all parties together to understand each other, even if they are not going to agree,” he says. 

OPLN’s strategy is to take leaders of plastic-polluting corporations like the Coca-Cola Company along with leaders of NGOs, such as Greenpeace, on Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit boating excursions. There they see firsthand the consequences of plastic proliferation. The organization identifies major divides between NGOs and corporations and works to find solutions that both sides can live with. 

“Whether you’re on the far left or the far right, this idea of experiencing the problem firsthand resonates,” Ford explains. “I realized how tangible the issue was, so we chartered a ship that was on its way from Antarctica to the Arctic and did the first ever Ocean Plastic Leadership Summit in the [Atlantic] gyre. We invited a bunch of plastic executives to come with us to snorkel 500 miles off the coast of Bermuda. They were pulling handfuls of trash out of the ocean.” 

Todd Barker, senior partner at Meridian Institute (a “collaboration-building and problem-solving organization”), pulls fistfuls of plastic from the Sargasso sea. Photo by Brian Liscinsky, courtesy of OPLN

An unsettling experience such as those his participants had while swimming in the wide blue sea amidst islands of plastic waste — some of it still identifiable as what they themselves might have tossed a week earlier  —  might be expected to inspire swift, radical changes in corporate behavior and in policy implementation. 

Some participants consider these joint excursions of environmentalists and polluters invaluable, while skeptics wonder if they are just a vehicle for greenwashing.

Unexpected Associates

“It has been useful to have stronger relationships with some of the participants, where I know I can call some of the biggest polluters in the world and they will return my call,” says John Hocevar, the oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA, who attended the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit with Ford. “We can have a conversation where I can be very direct about any problems and also in proposing solutions, knowing that the individual I am talking to isn’t going to take it so personally that we can’t even have the conversation.”

Hocevar views the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act as a great step forward for American policy. “I think the act is a great example of the kind of comprehensive, common-sense approach that we need from congress, a [forward step],” he says enthusiastically. “For most corporations it’s way more than what they’re comfortable with, and for us it’s a great step towards what we actually need.” 

Hocevar is excited for future international commitments to stem plastic use and production, such as the Global Plastics Treaty, which he says would be equivalent to a Paris Climate Accord for plastics. (There is actually no Global Plastics Treaty yet. OPLN is leading a Global Plastics Treaty Dialogue, billed as “an activist-to-industry year-long series of global online summits in advance of the United Nations Environment Assembly decision in February 2022 on whether to [even] pursue a Global Paris Agreement for Plastics.” Participants include Dow Chemical, Hasbro, HP, Kimberly-Clark, Nestle Waters, P&G, PepsiCo, Clorox, Coca-Cola, as well as Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund. OPLN proudly states that it remains neutral in these dialogues, listening to all sides’ concerns, and won’t be recommending anything after this yearlong exercise. It’s just “ensuring informed debate from the outset of the formal treaty development process.”)

Plastic taken out of the Sargasso sea during the Ocean Plastic Leadership Summit. Photo by Yarrow Kraner, courtesy of OPLN

The touted Paris Agreement has been shown to be grossly inadequate; even if countries were living up to its non-binding commitments, Earth’s atmosphere would still warm by 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Earth does not need another impotent treaty that does nothing for anyone while purporting to be “green.” And holding a dialogue with corporations, which have only one mission — to make money — to determine whether to try to get a new treaty strikes us as equally wasteful of precious time and energy. 

Thus, some might be surprised that Greenpeace — renowned for its refusal to bow to government or corporate intimidation and shunning of false solutions to climate change — is now excited about corporate-friendly approaches.  

We followed up with Hocevar to ask for his response to this concern. “There’s a lot going on,” he answered. “The UN Ministerial has just wrapped up its [two-day September 1 and 2, 2021] Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution] and made strides toward a strong, binding global treaty to address the full impact of plastics. There are countries — including the U.S. — that want a weak and voluntary approach. It could turn out to be another waste of time, but 100 other countries say they want something real, and more momentum is growing for excellent and meaningful regulations.”

Hocevar describes Greenpeace’s current strategy on plastic pollution as “working to eliminate throwaway plastic, not just to replace single-use, but to switch to reuse, refill, and package-free applications. We have a combination of corporate and policy arches in which we’re urging large corporate polluters to reduce waste and invest in reduce-and-reuse while also pushing state, national, and global governments to enact strong regulations.”

Greenpeace has been one of the most in-their-faces opponents of fossil-fuel corporations. Photo © Mike Stone / Greenpeace; used with permission

That idea — of enacting strong regulations — would be exciting if history hadn’t proven it impossible to date. A noble intention wasn’t lacking in the 2017 UN Environment Assembly “commitment to a pollution-free planet” and declaration that nations would “honor efforts to prevent, mitigate, and manage the pollution of air, land, soil, freshwater, and oceans.” It issued 13 nonbinding resolutions, which, well, are nonbinding. 

At the time, assembly president Edgar Gutiérrez, Costa Rica’s minister of environment and energy, declared, “With the promises made here, we are sending a powerful message that we will listen to the science, change the way we consume and produce, and tackle pollution in all its forms across the globe.” 

That powerful message and promises have gotten us to . . . where we are now: Each of us eats the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic each week — 50,000 particles a year. A World Economic Forum report predicts that at current rates of consumption, by 2050 there will be as much plastic in the oceans by weight as there are fish. In 2019, the United States shipped more than a billion pounds of plastic to 96 other countries (remember that China closed its doors to plastic waste the year before), where it was ostensibly to be recycled. 

Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics, a national organization that seeks to end plastic pollution, knows that current [actual and volunteer] commitments to reductions in plastic production are not enough to save the ocean or life on Earth. Enck sees strong new national legislation as the way forward. 

“An estimated 15 million metric tons of plastics enter the oceans each year, mostly from land sources,” Enck explains. ”If we continue with business as usual, there will be one pound of plastic in the ocean for every three pounds of fish by 2025! A small number of companies are voluntarily reducing their use of plastics, but it is too little to reverse this trend. We need strong laws on the books that require a reduction in plastic packaging.”

Enck also is pushing for passage of the federal Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which, as she stresses, is the most comprehensive legislation ever introduced in Congress to reduce plastic pollution. Not surprisingly, she reports, “It has been met with ferocious opposition from fossil fuel and chemical companies. That opposition can only be countered by citizens contacting their own members of Congress.” Beyond Plastics offers an easy way to do so via the “Take Action” section of its site. 


The magazine Science has reported research showing the inadequacies of the world’s current goals for reducing production and global emissions entering the ocean by 2030 to pre-2010 levels, when eight million tons were being produced each year (8 mt/year).

To hit even these modest targets in time, the article points out, current goals must be four to seven times higher, depending on the country, than they are. 

“Although many stakeholders heavily promote only one of these strategies (plastic waste reduction, waste management, and environmental recovery) as the ‘best one,’” the authors write, “these results demonstrate that drastic reductions in future plastic emissions cannot be achieved with any one strategy independently.”

Furthermore, the research team set the target goal of less than 8 mt/year arbitrarily. In reality, world governments need to continue to reduce plastic emissions well below the target, well past 2030.

In the 2019 CIEL report, researchers estimated that the production of ethylene in 2015 released between 184.3 million and 213.0 million metric tons (203.2 million and 234.8 million tons) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents — about the average amount spewed by 45 million cars over the course of a year.

These emissions eventually end up in the oceans and could limit the oceans’ ability to absorb CO2. This could be catastrophic for the environment, as the oceans are Earth’s largest carbon sink. For reference, since the beginning of the industrial era oceans have absorbed up to 40 percent of all CO2 generated by humans.

As previously noted, plastics in water leach chemicals that harm ocean life. Some of the most important organisms being hurt by toxins from plastic are phytoplankton and zooplankton, which (besides being foundational in the oceans-to-humans food chain) breathe CO2, turn it into waste products, and prevent it from reentering Earth’s atmosphere. This, over eons, has become fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal. 

“Research into these impacts is still in its infancy,” the report states, “but early indications that plastic pollution may interfere with the largest natural carbon sink on the planet should be cause for immediate attention and serious concern.”

Global Reaction

Aside from the Global Plastics Treaty or the nationwide Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, other governments around the world are working to curb the usage and production of plastic within their borders.

China has been both the number one producer and the number one consumer of plastics for years, points out Richard Smith, author of China’s Engine of Ecological Collapse and a founding member of System Change Not Climate Change. In 2018 China suddenly stopped buying used plastics, which it had been recycling into consumer goods, providing a through-use for half the world’s plastic waste. This had the dreadful consequence of sending many countries’ plastics to landfills. 

Costa Rica, a Central American country much lauded for its environmental policies, announced in 2018 that it would ban single-use plastics by 2021; the following year it passed a much-weakened law that relies on education and recycling instead of a ban. Thus its promise has not been met. The country is awash in plastic-packaged plastic-made consumer goods. One can stop into a restaurant almost anywhere in the country and be offered a plastic straw before being asked, and at many — if not most — grocery stores an employee will still begin packing purchases in single-use plastic bags before a customer has time to whip out a canvas one. The Covid pandemic would be no excuse for this, except when you think about how this tiny country, reliant on tourism, recently felt forced to become a World Bank/International Monetary Fund debtor nation and hasn’t had time or funds to mount a national public education campaign, let alone a monitoring and enforcement program.

A wall of plastic-wrapped plastic goods in a Costa Rica store. Photo by M. Stephens

A 2019 directive in the European Union aims to reduce plastic packaging waste and increase recycling requirements within its member states. It should mean less plastic is being produced and more is being reused as packaging, but it is unambitious and essentially unenforceable. For example, one of its “guidelines,” put into effect on 3 July 2021, is that four types of single-use plastics — “women’s sanitary products” (tampons) with plastic applicators; wet wipes; tobacco products and filters; and beverage cups — be labeled as such. This is less far-reaching than California’s Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act (A842), which, among other stipulations, would require all plastic packaging in the state to both contain recycled plastics and be recyclable within the state. That bill has yet to pass and is sitting for the third time (as of August 15, 2021) in the state assembly’s Natural Resources Committee. 

That these measures, inadequate as they are, are struggling to find traction in these policymaking bodies, should raise alarms everywhere, because the plastics emergency is as dire as the climate crisis. 

Proliferation of plastics to every corner of the globe is an urgent issue the world must address. As Judith Enck and others have explained, business as usual is like skydiving and not pulling the parachute. The longer we take to pull the chute and start seriously addressing plastics in the environment, the harder our landing is going to be. 

SCNCC will host a webinar on plastic pollution with the authors of this series on Sunday, 26 September 2021, at 10:00 a.m. Pacific, 11:00 a.m. Mountain, noon Central, 1:00 p.m. Eastern (US/Canada). Find your timezone here. Register here.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission