Petrochemicals
& Climate Change Conference

July 1 , 8:00 am July 3 , 5:00 pm EDT

The first international conference on Petrochemicals and Climate Change: Technology, Policy, and Societal Change in a Time of Planetary Crises is being held at the University of Cambridge 1 – 3 July, 2024.

This conference will be a meeting place for academics and staff from other research focused organizations who take an interest in the central role that the petrochemical and plastics industries play in contributing to the planetary crises of climate change, global pollution and biodiversity loss. We see that this conference could provide a great opportunity for learning across fields of research that are rarely connected, enabling discussion and debate amongst people from a wide range of disciplines.

he three central themes for the conference are:

  1. Global context and impacts
  2. Solutions and interventions for a just transition
  3. Actors and institutions

The fossil fuel industry threatens to sabotage COP28 as United Nations (UN) climate talks open today at Expo City, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. There is no shortage of talk about conflicts of interest as industries, investors, and complicit government representatives attend talks where UN delegates are expected to plan a phase down or phase out of industries’ extraction and use of climate-warming oil, gas, and coal.

This, as swift, effective action to address the climate crisis has never been more urgent. COP28 is being held during the hottest year ever recorded, one of destructive storms, wildfires, and other climate-related disasters. It’s clear further delay in implementing the real solutions needed to take effective action on a global, systems scale will only continue to harm people and the planet.

Fossil Fuel Industry Interests Flood COP28

Much public controversy was stirred up well ahead of COP28, starting with the mere fact that the UN talks are being held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE is one of the world’s biggest producers of fossil fuels, the main ingredient in plastics and many of plastic’s toxic additives.

What’s more, the appointed presiding host of the talks is the head of Adnoc (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company), Dr. Sultan Al Jaber. In addition to being hosted by the head of the United Arab Emirates’ biggest oil company, investigations suggest that ahead of the talks, Adnoc was preparing to strike fossil fuel deals with negotiating nations. Two days before COP28, Jaber rejected accusations that the UAE planned to market fossil fuel dealings during the climate talks. 

Also ahead of COP28, fossil-fuel friendly Saudi Arabia was outed for quietly developing a significant global investment plan—the oil demand sustainability program (ODSP)—to drive demand for its oil and gas in developing nations. And we learned the United States has produced record-setting amounts of oil and gas in 2023, and only plans to continue expanding. Meanwhile, global production of plastic is expected to triple by 2060, with fossil fuels increasingly used to make the material due to rules clamping down on fossil fuel uses for combustion.

This is far from the first time industry interests have attempted to take over global climate talks. In the last 15 years, COPs have also been held in fossil-fuel friendly Egypt and Qatar. However, this year’s leadership by a major representative of the fossil fuel industry is unprecedented. Continued and increasing fossil fuel presence at COPs and in other climate change talks is widely viewed as part of the industry’s attempt to avoid regulation.

Future of People and the Planet at Stake

COP has been held annually since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was ratified in 1992. As human-driven climate change intensifies, increasingly warming the Earth and its inhabitants, urgency for solutions grows. 

In addition to potentially negotiating an agreement to phase down or phase out fossil fuels, UN delegates are also expected to finalize the details of a “loss and damage” fund for compensating poorer countries that have been disproportionately harmed by the climate crisis while not having greatly contributed to global greenhouse gas emissions. However, the fund text, in its current form, fails to require wealthy nations to pay into it while also housing the fund in the World Bank, which continues to fund unjust, unhealthy, and damaging coal projects.

This year’s meeting is especially important, as it represents the first Global Stocktake of progress for the 196 UN parties that have agreed to take action to slow global warming. The focus of the 2015 Paris Agreement is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially from fossil fuel use and production, in order to stay below the threshold of a 1.5 degree Celsius (or more) rise in average global temperature above pre-industrial times by 2100.

But according to the UN’s own experts, humanity realistically now has only a 14 percent chance of meeting the 1.5 degree target. We are far more likely to see a nearly 3 degrees Celsius rise in average global temperature by the end of the century due to industries’ continued extraction, processing, transportation, storage, use, and sale of fossil fuels. According to scientists, if we exceed 3 degrees of heating, the Earth could pass several catastrophic, deadly, and irreversible tipping points, including mass desertification of rainforests and total melting of ice sheets. This would put the survival of much life on Earth, including human lives, at risk.

Our Allies Speak Out at COP28

Climate experts stress that real solutions to the climate crisis begin with keeping existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We must also address climate-warming greenhouse emissions from major industries such as industrial agriculture, transportation, shipping, and of course production of plastics. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies and some governments continue to hide behind technologically focused fixes like “advanced” recycling of plastics and carbon-capture-storage (CCS), which only perpetuate pollution and injustice, and do not actually diminish human dependence on fossil fuels. 

In a world where limits are increasingly placed on fossil fuel combustion, production of plastics has been identified by industries as an area for continued growth and profits—despite plastics causing widespread harm to people and human rights, wildlife, the planet, and the climate. 

To help communicate key facts and stress the need for urgent, effective action to address the interconnected climate and plastic crises, Plastic Pollution Coalition Executive Advisory Board Member Dr. Michael K. Dorsey, and Youth Ambassadors Xiye Bastida and Sophia Kianni are among some of our allies participating in COP28. In Dubai, on December 7, Youth Ambassador AY Young will host “THE RECHARGE,” a solar-powered music-meets-climate-solutions event with many special guests. In all, the UN estimates more than 70,000 attendees will be present at the talks. 

Though the challenges ahead are great, a growing sense of awareness is driving people to take action. And, as the Dalai Lama pointed out as the talks opened today, there are many inspiring people making the change we need today.

Take Action

We see worrisome signs that the industries, investors, and governments driving the climate crisis are serious about resisting the change they must make to avert the most severe impacts of global warming. Representatives from the U.S. and China—the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters—who plan to attend COP28 include U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua. However, absent from the talks are the nations’ Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping of the United States and China. 

Despite identifying the climate crisis as a focal point of attention and action, President Biden has allowed the fossil fuel industry to continue to grow under his leadership. You can help show the world that we demand that industries and governments act to protect the environment, and put people before—and not after—profits. Tell the president to stop approving new and expanded petrochemical and plastic facilities to help protect communities from pollution and the climate crisis.

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People often ask what really happens to their plastic recycling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter where you set out your plastic for recycling collection, whether at the end of your driveway, at your local recycling center, or in a municipal recycling bin: Most plastic items collected as recycling are not actually recycled. Surprisingly, plastic is not designed to be recycled.

When you put used plastic (packaging, bottles, wraps, films, etc.) in a recycling bin (or trash bin), it is transferred into the hands of the global waste industry. This industry is made up of a wide network of businesses, governments, and individuals vying for a share of the nearly $500 billion that is generated annually in the global waste market. This trash trade has grown significantly over time, apace with plastics production and per capita waste generation, though recycling of plastic and other types of waste makes up a very small share of the market.

From a recycling bin, plastics are sent by rail or truck to waste-sorting facilities, also called materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Here, plastics are commonly sorted by like types (think films and bags, bottles, foams) and baled (squashed together into easily transportable space-saving cubes). Then it’s loaded back up on a train or truck, or a cargo ship, for the next leg of its journey.

1. Plastic “Recycling” Pollutes When Transported

The transportation of plastic—no matter how it is carried—contributes to plastic pollution, as plastics easily blow, roll, bounce, or are picked by animals like seagulls while they are on the move. This escaped plastic waste enters the environment and begins to break apart into plastic particles that enter our bodies when we eat, drink, and breathe. We’re exposed to even more pollution from the machines, vehicles, and fuels needed to power this constant transportation of plastic waste, which spew out hazardous particulate air pollution and climate-warming greenhouse gases.

2. Plastic “Recycling” Gets Shipped Away—But There is No “Away”

An enormous amount of plastics, labeled as “recycling,” have been historically shipped from the Global North to the Global South. Shipped plastic waste is rarely ever recycled upon reaching its destination. Instead, this waste colonialism more commonly involves waste haulers illegally dumping and open-burning plastics, shouldering the people who live near these dumping sites with major health risks and a degraded environment. People who earn incomes by picking wastes make the least from cheap plastics, and because of constant exposure to plastics in their line of work face elevated risks of cancers, infectious diseases (which cling to plastics), respiratory problems, and other serious health issues.

3. Plastic “Recycling” Ends Up in Landfills

Other plastics collected as recycling are simply landfilled or open-dumped (often illegally). Landfills and dumps emit climate-warming methane gas, attract insects and scavenging disease-carrying animals like rats and gulls, and leach toxic chemicals into surrounding soils and waters. They bring constant and loud truck and rail traffic to neighborhoods, release noxious diesel and waste fumes, and carry high risk of fires generated by landfill gases and highly flammable plastic waste.

4. Plastic “Recycling” Gets Burned

A growing amount of plastics are sent to incinerators, sometimes called “waste-to-energy” plants. These facilities burn plastics in huge ovens, to release toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases, while producing only meager amounts of electricity. Incineration also produces a constant stream of toxic ash that is hazardously stored in manmade ponds or is landfilled. Incinerator ash and emissions release toxic particulate matter and chemicals that increase people’s risk of cancers, respiratory illnesses, immune system problems, and other serious diseases. In the U.S., about 4.4 million people live within 3 miles of an incinerator, and 80 percent of those incinerators are located in BIPOC, low-income, and rural communities.

5. Plastics “Recycling” Means “Downcycling”

Even when some form of plastics recycling actually does happen, the term “recycling” is a misnomer. You may have noticed that many plastic items are imprinted with small numbers surrounded by three interlocking arrows. While many people associate those arrows and numbers with recycling, in reality they confer nothing about a plastic item’s actual potential to be recycled. Instead, the numbers are considered codes indicating what type of plastic an item is made from. These numbers in the chasing arrows give the public a false sense that all plastics are recyclable or may be recycled.

When collected, plastics marked with numbers 1 and 2 are more likely to be recycled—or rather, downcycled—which means making lower-quality plastic products from the “recycled” plastic. For example, number 1 plastic, polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is a clear plastic used for many beverage bottles, and might get downcycled into things like fleece jackets and carpeting. Number 2 plastic is high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, which is an opaque plastic used to make more rigid plastic containers like milk jugs. HDPE is downcycled into things like plastic lumber and picnic tables. Sometimes plastic number 5, polypropylene, or PP, which is used for many medium-weight opaque plastic containers like yogurt pots and shampoo bottles is downcycled into things like plastic crates and playground equipment—but like most plastics, it is more often landfilled.

Even when plastic is recycled/downcycled, which is not the case for most plastic waste, manufacturers mix in a large portion of freshly made plastic or toxic additives to melted down plastic waste to restore some of its desirable properties. Plastics are not made to be recycled, and their quality diminishes with each attempt. Recycling is also expensive, and requires huge amounts of infrastructure, equipment, water, and energy. Meanwhile, the value of truly recycled plastics—that is, plastic turned back into plastic, which has always been low—has plummeted even further as (thankfully) new regulations are tightening up on waste colonialism and injustice.

6. “Chemical or Advanced Recycling” of Plastics Really Means Melting or Burning

The plastic industry and the petrochemical industry which provides plastics’ fossil fuel ingredients continue to attempt to control the narrative around plastics and recycling. In addition to pushing plastics recycling as they always have, these industries are now also marketing so-called advanced, or chemical, recycling (a fancy name for burning plastics). It involves melting down plastics into more basic petrochemical products—including fuels that are burned for energy and release climate-warming greenhouse gases. This is not recycling.

The plastic and petrochemical industries have also leaned heavily on the ideas that enzymes may be able to break down plastics (which is incorrect, as they only accelerate the break up of plastics into hazardous particles), and that there’s huge value in all the plastic waste piled up in landfills, communities, and the environment (there isn’t). 

Throughout history, these industries have spent fortunes launching nonprofits with names that sound environmentally conscious and a heavy stream of media, instructional materials, and ad campaigns extolling the virtues of their recycling strategies, then and now. When one considers the facts, plastics “recycling” stops looking like recycling at all.

Conclusion: Plastics “Recycling” is Greenwashing

In a world where many of us have been told by parents and teachers to recycle plastic as children, or learned from public service announcements, ads, and other kinds of media as young adults, this may come as a surprise or even a shock. How can an activity we’ve been told is right, actually be wrong?

Many activities, organizations, and products bear a green sheen without any substance behind it, or oversell their positive environmental impacts—this is “greenwashing.” It’s a prime business strategy for corporations making and selling plastic. Greenwashing can look like a vague label with words like “green,” “eco-friendly,” “bio-based,” “ocean-bound plastic,” or “certified plastic neutral” slapped onto plastic items or packaging, or can be representative of an entire process—like plastic recycling itself. The plastic and petrochemical industries are also co-opting language used to describe real solutions—like “zero-waste” and “circular”—inaccurately, for their benefit, mainly to perpetuate the myth that is plastics recycling.

Behind the scenes as they extol the virtues of recycling and advanced chemical recycling, plastic and petrochemical industry trade groups pour money and energy into lobbying for legislation designed to erode protections on human and environmental health. Their end goal is to facilitate increased production of plastics, and they are achieving this by perpetuating misinformation and driving widespread pollution and injustice for their financial gain.

The Real Solution to is to Turn Off the Plastic Tap

Image courtesy of artist Ben Von Wong.

Only 9 percent of the plastics made since they were first mass-produced in the mid-1900s have been recycled. The recycling rate in the US, the world’s biggest plastic-waste producer, is presently a mere five to six percent. But even if plastic recycling rates were higher, recycling alone could never come close to solving the serious and wide-ranging health, justice, socio-economic, and environmental crises caused by industries’ continued plastic production and plastic pollution, which go hand in hand. Production of plastic has only grown over time, and has presently hit a rate of more than 400 million metric tons per year, more than double the rate at which plastics were made just 20 years ago. This is clearly a much more rapid pace than at which plastic recycling actually occurs.

It’s clear recycling is not enough to solve the plastic pollution crisis. The fossil fuel industry, governments, and corporations really need to turn off the plastic tap. 

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