Big Oil Bets Big on Plastic

by | Jan 14, 2020

On that warm summer evening in 2018, Ariell Llunga wasn’t looking for an environmental epiphany. Thanks to a friends’ gift of two tickets to see Kings of Leon at the Rose Bowl, and her sister’s offer to babysit, the Pasadena-based sustainable food advocate and her husband had danced their way through a rare kid-free night out. As the concert ended and the crowd began to thin, Llunga and her husband lingered, then began walking across the 90,000-seat stadium’s ground-level field to get a closer look at the stage.

That’s when Llunga realized she was “just wading through a sea of plastic water bottles,” she says.

Llunga recalls feeling shocked by the thousands of empty single-use bottles of water left behind by the evening’s crowd. “They had water refill stations, they tried. But short of just banning these bottles … maybe it helped but it didn’t eradicate the problem.That for me was an awakening,” she says,”to be standing in this place where we play, we bring our kids there all the time too, to this really beautiful park, and it’s covered in plastic.”

Since that night, Llunga has begun ridding her life of single-use plastic, and encouraging friends and co-workers to do the same. Since she works on food policy issues, food was a natural place to start, Llunga says, especially once she learned about the chemicals in plastic that can leach into food. These include substances like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), which can affect children’s neurological and reproductive development. Her steps include “moving over to glass for storage,” says Llunga, as well as “slowly doing more bulk buying so I’m not getting everything in plastic bags.”

“The hardest thing for me has been the kid thing,” she adds. “They eat on the go, they’re snack machines,” making plastic wrappers and containers difficult to avoid in daily life.

Llunga says she realizes that her individual steps to cut back on plastics can’t solve the plastic pollution problem. But they’re a place to start that seem more approachable than fighting for systemic changes to environmental and health policies. “Environmental issues can feel overwhelming if you have other immediate, pressing issues—like in my line of work we are dealing with people who are literally starving,” she says.

That’s why she encourages individual actions, despite understanding that the biggest changes need to happen at the regulatory level. “I don’t want people to feel bogged down by both ends, like they’re not able to make an effort as an individual or on the policy front,” says Llunga. “You can change your behavior, take steps today, then pay a little more attention to who you’re voting for.”


On Earth Day 1971, Keep America Beautiful launched the anti-pollution public messaging effort that has since become its trademark, the “Crying Indian” campaign. In the campaign’s signature Public Service Announcement, a brown-skinned man wearing fringed buckskins, his dark hair in two braids, paddles a birchbark canoe past shorelines crowded with industrial plants that spew smoke and steam. As he pulls his canoe up onto a beach littered with plastic bottles and cups, a deep male voiceover begins: “Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country…” The “Indian” walks up the bank to the edge of a multilane highway, just in time to see someone toss a bag of trash out their car window, to land and burst open at his feet: “… and some people don’t.”

The kicker? “People start pollution, people can stop it,” the voiceover says, as the camera pans back to the paddler with a single tear in his eye.

Today we know that this iconic environmental awareness campaign, which launched the term “litterbug” into the American lexicon, was a corporate public relations gambit. (Even the “Indian” wasn’t a Native American, but an Italian-American actor named Iron Eyes Cody.) Funded by various beverage and packaging companies, it succeeded at convincing the public that individuals, not manufacturers and their embrace of disposable packaging, were responsible for causing environmental problems like litter. The materials in litter have shifted over the decades since to include tons of plastic, but that message remains strong today. Like the tobacco industry before it, and much of the fossil fuel sector today, these companies are resisting calls to end reliance on plastics by claiming all they’re doing is answering consumer demand, pinning a worldwide plastics pollution crisis on consumers.


The first scientific research documenting a significant microplastic pollution problem (microplastics are bits of plastic no more than five millimeters wide, often created when larger plastic items degrade and break up in the environment) appeared in the early 1970s. “Yet here we are 50 years later, acting like it’s a new problem,” says marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols. “Why? Who did what to ensure that it’s taken so long to get from science to action?”

Nichols was once a senior scientist at The Ocean Conservancy, the non-profit that organizes the International Coastal Cleanup project. According to the group, the project (which it also calls “Trash Free Seas”) has grown from one Texas beach in 1986, to the world’s largest annual beach cleanup effort, involving over a million volunteers picking up trash from riversides, lakefronts, and beaches in over 100 countries, and documenting what they find — including a growing amount of plastic. 2018 was the second year in a row in which each of the 10 most common trash items recorded, including beverage bottles (1,754,908 million, fifth place) and caps (1,390,232, sixth place) were made of plastic.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that of the 300 million tons of plastic manufactured annually, 8 tons wind up in the ocean. For years scientists have been finding marine animals that have starved to death with their bellies full of plastic trash. There’s growing evidence that exposure to petrochemical plastic pollution, notably microplastics, which are now present in ocean waters worldwide, can alter feeding and self-protective behaviors in some marine fish and shellfish, diminishing their ability to thrive. Microplastics have also spread to the human food supply, the air, and household dust: a 2019 study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology estimated that humans are already consuming 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles each year. Include what we breathe in, and that number rises to between 74,000 and 121,000. It’s not yet known how this may be affecting human health.

“We were sitting on the best data set for plastic pollution…the list of things we were picking up on beach cleanups,” Nichols says. “But we were still calling it ‘marine debris’”— an industry euphemism for plastic pollution — “and not telling volunteers to change their lifestyles. Or calling the companies whose brands were on those things to do anything.”

Nichols says he decided to stick his neck out by suggesting some changes: Let’s call it plastic pollution. Let’s ask people to take some key actions to use less plastic after the clean-up, and call on companies themselves to do something about their packaging.

“That led to these other conversations,” he says, during which it was pointed out to him that some of the major underwriters of the International Coastal Cleanup were companies producing these plastics, including ACC, Altrea, Philip Morris, and Coca Cola. “On the one hand, that’s a good thing: They made the mess, they should fund the cleanup,” says Nichols “But their funding impeded us actually doing something. That was my opinion.” That opinion earned Nichols a new job description, one that barred him from speaking publicly. Eventually, he resigned.

“Not that Ocean Conservancy is a villain,” he says, “but it helps answer the question of why we haven’t progressed in 50 years” on plastic pollution. The Ocean Conservancy still lists Coca-Cola as the lead funder of the International Coastal Cleanup.


“Two days ago I was giving a speech in Massachusetts, and I gave the policy overview,” says Judith Enck, the founder of Beyond Plastics. “Inevitably people want to know how to reduce plastic in their own life,” she says. “It’s a good question, so I tell people here’s what you can do, but you’ll barely make a difference.”

“We need laws that reduce it,” says Enck, a top Obama administration environmental official-turned-professor. “And if we want to solve climate change, we have to solve plastic pollution.”

The visibility of plastic in the ocean and on beaches is drawing the public’s attention and growing alarm, says Enck. But solving it means encouraging people to make the leap from individual action to policy change as quickly as possible.

Enck believes that making the connections between plastic pollution, climate change, and environmental justice equally visible may help increase public support for those changes, which she says must eventually include bans on polystyrene foam food containers, plastic straws, and plastic bags.

Activists like Enck are finding that decades of public service messages about individual responsibility have paid off for industry: The public largely accepts that taking individual steps to reduce use and increase recycling of plastic will eventually solve the plastic pollution problem. (Enck calls plastics recycling “a myth,” noting that at its best plastic recycling only deals with about 9 percent of U.S. plastic pollution.) “A lot of people will spend a lot of time and money going plastic-free personally,” she says, but stop short of challenging industry practices or government policies. “This is the power of the narrative the industry has created.” Cut off demand, the thinking goes, and supply will have to change.


But the fossil fuel sector knows how to keep demand going. When the world was concerned about “peak oil” during the 1970s, and Americans worried that waning oil supplies might slow economic growth, the public got quite good at conserving energy. Oil companies saw that as a problem. A decade after the peak oil crisis, when supplies were not just matching but far outpacing demand, a 1981 Chevron shareholder magazine advocated to its investors that should consumer demand again wane, the firm must invest heavily in exploration and produce more oil, to drive down prices to the point where “consumers will resume their previous consumption pattern.”

In 2020, with the world slowly beginning to accept that climate change mandates a fast phaseout of fossil fuels for energy, oil companies are worrying about waning demand once again. Projections from both within and outside the industry agree that demand will dip soon, and energy stocks have already begun to drop. U.S. oil prices dropped 26% in 2019, according to The Wall Street Journal, and the SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production exchange-traded fund lost nearly half of its value. While the Nasdaq expects oil prices to increase slightly in 2020, according to BP’s 2018 Energy Outlook, global oil demand will peak in 2025.

Meanwhile, a supply glut has depressed natural gas prices. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the price of natural gas declined 23 percent in 2019, to an average $2.57 per million British thermal units (MMBtu). In late 2019, Chevron announced that it would write down $10 billion to $11 billion in assets, “more than half related to the Appalachia shale.”

The petrochemicals sector, by contrast, is on the upswing. It’s forecasted to grow from $539.3 billion in 2018 to $958.8 billion by 2025, and from 16 percent of oil demand in 2020 to 20 percent by 2040. It’s demand for plastic across multiple industries that will drive those increases. Since plastics can also be manufactured from ethylene, a byproduct of fracking, the plastics market is beginning to look like a solution to the gas oversupply, as well.

Fossil fuel companies have long had large and successful petrochemical operations, but in the past they were a handy side business. Today, refineries dedicated to petrochemicals are becoming an end in themselves. Petrochemicals were once 2 percent to 20 percent of average refinery output, but in the past five years that number has jumped to between 40 percent and 50 percent for new refineries, equivalent to around 10 million tons of petrochemicals a year per facility. Oil companies are also beginning to add plastic manufacturing to the mix, building crude-to-plastic production complexes and so-called “cracker” facilities that turn the ethane created by natural gas drilling into ethylene, a key ingredient in next-generation plastics, and then churn out millions of tons of plastic pellets.

Globally, the oil and gas industry is starting to diversify not to renewable energy or carbon capture technology, as their ads might suggest, but to one of the leading forms of ocean plastic pollution.

Fossil fuel companies have begun constructing pipelines to deliver ethane directly from fracking well pad sites to industrial facilities, which then heat it to about 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, “cracking” apart ethane at the molecular level to produce ethylene, a base ingredient in some forms of plastic.

“This makes production of single-use plastics cheaper than it’s ever been, ” Enck says, “and once these facilities come online we’re really in the soup, because they’re not going to spend billions of dollars and then decommission them.”

It’s easy for industry to paint these facilities with a green brush: They’re capturing ethane, a climate-heating air pollutant and waste product of fracking, and turning it into useful plastic. But the reality is a climate and emissions disaster, according to activists like Enck. “If plastic production grows as planned, and it’s a steep trajectory up at the moment, carbon emissions from these crackers will be equivalent to emissions of 295 500-megawatt coal plants,” she says.

Cracker facilities themselves also contribute to air pollution, and like many petroleum industry facilities before them, tend to be located in or near low-income communities. As InsideClimate News reported in 2019, Shell is already building a massive plant on a 386-acre plot in Pennsylvania, along the Ohio River. Once complete it will produce more than a million tons of nurdles—little plastic pellets—per year, and plans are already underway for two more petrochemical plastic plants along the river. Texas and Louisiana are also embracing the new industry.


Even though oil and gas producers are hellbent on maintaining supply no matter what’s happening with demand, Enck still encourages changing personal habits.. “If only for your own health and avoiding various chemicals, it’s worthwhile,” she says. But she also hopes that people will soon begin to hold some key industries responsible for reducing plastic pollution. “Because ultimately personal action is kinda pointless unless you take the next step to political action.”

Llunga, the southern California sustainable food advocate and parent, finds that a tough truth to swallow, especially when even people with all the money, time, and energy in the world seldom move past lifestyle changes to political action. “It’s so challenging in my work and my everyday existence as a black woman,” she says. “The needs of my community feel more pressing, and are more every day, than this abstractness of the environment.” Communities of color didn’t create this problem, she observes, and tend not to benefit from it, either. “That’s you with your AC, and your green lawn, and your freeway that cuts through my neighborhood,” says Llunga. “I’m trying to make sure my husband gets home safe every night and that my children are whole. But, that doesn’t make the problem go away. We’re no longer at a point where it matters who caused the problem. If the Earth doesn’t want to host any of us any more, that doesn’t matter.”

The most effective solutions, says Nichols, involve selling the world on the vision of a better world entirely, and then creating that world.

“Industry wants the environmental movement to be focused on climate change and plastic pollution, and all the wrong done by certain companies and people,” he says. “That’s easier for them to deal with than, ‘hey there’s this other, better, more fun, more beautiful way to do things.’”

Like the bottling and beverage industries did with their Keep America Beautiful Campaign, fossil fuel industries have used sophisticated public relations campaigns to keep the public thinking about anything besides systemic solutions to plastic pollution. “I think we haven’t had very good marketing,” Nichols says. “The fossil fuel industry gave us the framing that worked best for them.”

To create lasting solutions, Nichols says, activists need to start thinking like the industries they want to change. “If we are in the behavior change business—and we are—we should have behavioral experts on our staffs, boards, and at our meetings. Those who created the problems do.”

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.