Global plastics production, 1917 to 2050

Graph of global plastic production, 1917 to 2017
Global plastic production, megatonnes, 1917 to 2017

This week’s graph shows global annual plastics production over the past 100 years.  No surprise, we see exponential growth—a hallmark of our petro-industrial consumer civilization.  Long-term graphs of nearly anything (nitrogen fertilizer production, energy use, automobile productiongreenhouse gas emissions, air travel, etc.) display this same exponential take-off.

Plastics present a good news / bad news story.  First, we should acknowledge that the production capacities we’ve developed are amazing!  Worldwide, our factories now produce approximately 400 million tonnes of plastic per year.  That’s more than a billion kilograms per day!  Around the world we’ve built thousands of machines that can, collectively, produce plastic soft-drink and water bottles at a rate of nearly 20,000 per second.  Our economic engines are so powerful that we’ve managed to double global plastic production tonnage in less than two decades.

But of course that’s also the bad news: we’ve doubled plastic production tonnage in less than two decades.  And the world’s corporations and governments would have us go on doubling and redoubling plastics production.  The graph below shows the projected four-fold increase in production tonnage by 2050.

Graph of global plastics production to 2050
Projected global plastics production to 2050

Source: UN GRID-Arendal

Plastics are a product of human ingenuity and innovation—one of civilization’s great solutions.  They’re lightweight, durable, airtight, decay resistant, inexpensive, and moldable into a huge range of products.  But projected 2050 levels of production are clearly too much of a good thing.  Our growth-addicted economic system has a knack for turning every solution into a problem—every strength into a weakness.

At current and projected production levels, plastics are a big problem.  Briefly:

1.  Plastics are forever—well, almost.  Except for the tonnage we’ve incinerated, nearly all the plastic ever produced still exists somewhere in the biosphere, although much of it is now invisible to humans, reduced to tiny particles in ocean and land ecosystems.  Plastic is great because it lasts so long and resists decay.  Plastic is a big problem for those same reasons.

2. Only 18 percent of plastic is recycled.  This is the rate for plastics overall, including plastics in cars and buildings.  For plastic packaging (water bottles, chip bags, supermarket packaging, etc.) the recycling rate is just 14 percent.  But much of that plastic inflow is excluded during the sorting and recycling process, such that only 5 percent of plastic packaging material is  actually returned to use through recycling.   And one third of plastic packaging escapes garbage collection systems entirely and is lost directly into the environment: onto roadsides or into streams, lakes, and oceans.

3. Oceans are now receptacles for at least 8 billion kilograms of plastic annually—equivalent to a garbage truck full of plastic unloading into the ocean every minute.  The growth rates projected above will mean that by 2050 the oceans will be receiving the equivalent of one truckload of plastic every 15 second, night and day.  And unless we severely curtail plastic production and dumping, by 2050 the mass of plastic in our oceans will exceed the mass of fish.  Once in the ocean, plastics persist for centuries, in the form of smaller and smaller particles.  This massive contamination comes on top of other human impacts: overfishing, acidification, and ocean temperature increases.

4. Plastic is a fossil fuel product.  Plastic is made from oil and natural gas feedstocks—molecules extracted from the oil and gas become the plastic.  And oil, gas, and other energy sources are used to power the plastic-making processes.  By one estimate, 4 percent of global oil production is consumed as raw materials for plastic and an additional 4 percent provides energy to run plastics factories.

5. Plastics contain additives than harm humans and other species: fire retardants, stabilizers, antibiotics, plasticizers, pigments, bisphenol A, phthalates, etc.  Many such additives mimic hormones or disrupt hormone systems.  The 150 billion kilograms of plastics currently in the oceans includes 23 billion kgs of additives, all of which will eventually be released into those ocean ecosystems.

It’s important to think about plastics, not just because doing so shows us that we’re doing something wrong, but because the tragic story of plastics shows us why and how our production and energy systems go wrong.  The story of plastics reveals the role of exponential growth in turning solutions into problems.  Thinking about the product-flow of plastics (oil well … factory … store … home … landfill/ocean) shows us why it is so critical to adopt closed-loop recycling and highly effective product-stewardship systems.  And the entire plastics debacle illustrates the hidden costs of consumerism, the collateral damage of disposable products, and the failure of “the markets” to protect the planet.

In a recent paper that takes a big-picture, long-term look at plastics, scientists advise that “without a well-designed … management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.”

Graph sources:
• 1950 to 2015 data from Geyer, Jambeck, and Law, “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made,” Science Advances 3, no. 7 (July 2017).
• 2016 and 2017 data points are extrapolated at a 4.3 percent growth rate derived from the average growth rate during the previous 20 years.
• Pre-1950 production tonnage is assumed to be negligible, based on various sources and the very low production rates in 1950.

Saskatchewan’s new Climate Change Strategy: reckless endangerment

Graph of Saskatchewan greenhouse gas emissions relative to selected nations
Saskatchewan greenhouse gas emissions relative to selected nations

Saskatchewan’s greenhouse gas emissions are extremely high: 66 tonnes per person per year.  What if Saskatchewan was a country, instead of a province?  If that were the case, we’d find that no country on Earth had per-capita emissions higher than ours.

This week’s graph compares per-capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Saskatchewan to emissions in a variety of countries.  The units are tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq).  The data is for the years 2014 and 2015, the most recent years for which data is available.  The graph shows that Saskatchewan’s emissions are higher than those of petro-states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar and manufacturing nations such as China and Germany.

Our world-topping per-person emissions form part of the context for this week’s release of the Government of Saskatchewan’s climate strategy: Prairie Resilience: A Made-in-Saskatchewan Climate Change Strategy.  The report isn’t really a plan of action—more an attempt at public relations and a collection of re-announcements.   Most critically, it lacks a specific set of measures that can, taken together, enable citizens and businesses in this province to reduce our GHG emissions by 30 percent by 2030.  I’ll review some of the key points of the document, but first just a bit more context.

In Paris in 2015, the world’s governments reaffirmed a target of limiting global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (relative to pre-industrial levels).  However, more and more scientists are warning that 2 degrees is not a “safe level,” and that temperature increases of this magnitude will create floods, droughts, storms, and deaths in many parts of the world.  But a 2 degree rise is better than 4 or 5 degrees.

So that’s the first point: our 2 degree target is weak.  To this we’ve added inadequate emission-reduction commitments.  In the lead-up to the Paris climate talks the world’s governments each submitted specific emission-reduction commitments.  Canada committed to cut this country’s emissions by 30 percent (below 2005 levels) by 2030.  Other nations made similar pledges.  But here’s the troubling part: When you add up all those emissions-reduction commitments you find that they put the world on track, not for 2 degrees of warming, but for 3.2 degrees (UN Emissions Gap Report 2017).  So this is the context for recent climate change strategies from Saskatchewan and other provinces: These plans amount to inadequate provincial contributions to an inadequate national commitment to a weak international target.

One final bit of context: not only are per-capita emissions in Saskatchewan among the highest in the world, they continue to increase: up 65 percent in a generation (1990 to 2015).  Some will want to excuse our province: it’s cold here.  But our per-capita emissions are almost twice as high as those in the Northwest Territories, nine times as high as in the Yukon, and four times as high as those in neighbouring Manitoba.  Others will want to talk about the fact that Saskatchewan is a resource-producing and agricultural province; our prosperity depends upon our ability to keep farming and mining and producing oil and gas.  There’s a grain of truth to some parts of that idea, but it simply cannot be the case that “prosperity” requires the emission of 66 tonnes of GHGs per person.  Citizens in every nation want prosperity.  But if everyone in the world felt entitled to emit GHGs at the same rate as us, there would soon be no Saskatchewan as we know it.  There would be a parched desert here, and submerged cities worldwide.  In a climate- and carbon-constrained world, prosperity simply cannot require Saskatchewan-sized emissions.

So, with this for context, what does the Saskatchewan Climate Change Strategy propose?  The government has re-committed to increasing the production of low-emission electricity—to the “expansion of renewable energy sources up to 50 per cent of generating capacity” by 2030.  This is good news and we must ensure that this happens, well before 2030, if possible.  But careful readers might note three things in the preceding commitment:  1. the words “up to.”  2. generating capacity is not the same as output; because of the intermittent nature of wind power, for example, 50 percent of capacity will not equate to 50 percent of production.  3. electricity provides less than 30 percent of Saskatchewan’s total energy demand.  Thus, moving to 50 percent renewable/low-emission sources for electricity leaves 80+ percent of Saskatchewan’s energy needs filled by high-emission fossil fuels.

The Climate Change Strategy includes the creation of a technology fund.  But this is not new.  The government passed legislation in 2010 requiring large emitters to pay into a green technology fund.  That law was never put into force.

Predictably, the Strategy rejects a carbon tax, arguing that such a tax “would make it more difficult for our province to respond effectively to climate change because a simple tax will not result in the innovations required to actually reduce emissions.”

The Strategy also includes a vague mix of commitments to reporting, potential future measures to reduce methane emissions, emission-intensity targets, and offset trading.  Think of this as a cap-and-trade system without a cap.

The Strategy includes some positive steps but fails to deliver what we need: a comprehensive, detailed plan that will result in a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.  This failing is especially evident when one takes into account probable emissions increases that may result from economic growth, planned increases in energy production, and increased use of agricultural inputs such as nitrogen fertilizer.  (Applied tonnage of N fertilizer has doubled since 2002.)

Overall, the Strategy steers away from discussions of emissions reduction and focuses instead on the idea of “resilience.”  That word appears 44 times in 12 pages.  The report defines resilience as “the ability to cope with, adapt to, and recover from stress and change.”  But resilience—coping, adapting, and recovering—may simply prove impossible in the face of the magnitude of climate change that will scorch our province under a business-as-usual scenario.  The high-emission, fossil-fuel-dependent future assumed in the Climate Change Strategy would raise the average temperature of this province by 6 to 8 degrees Celsius (sources available on request).  Climate disruption of that magnitude vetoes adaptation and mocks resilience.

And even if we in Saskatchewan could find ways to adapt and make ourselves resilient in the face of the blows that may be inflicted by a hotter, stormier, more damaging climate, we must ask: Will poor and vulnerable populations around the world be able to make themselves “resilient” to the climate change that our emissions trigger?   The global proliferation of Saskatchewan-level emissions would cause cities to disappear under the waves, food-growing regions to bake and wither, and tropical storms to become more numerous and damaging.  What is our ethical position if we are among the greatest contributors to these calamities, yet all we offer affected populations is the advice to make themselves more resilient?

A real plan is possible.  Emission reductions of 30 percent by 2030 are attainable at costs that Saskatchewan can afford.  Holding global temperature increases to 2 degrees also remains possible.  All this can be accomplished if governments act with courage and integrity, rapidly and effectively, and in the interests of citizens and the future.

Graph sources:
Saskatchewan and other provinces: Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators: Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
Other nations: World Resources Institute, CAIT Climate Data Explorer.