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The world is awash in plastic. Oil producers want a say in how it's cleaned up

People work at a landfill in India that's full of plastic bags. Members of the United Nations are negotiating a treaty that's aimed at cutting plastic pollution globally.
Shammi Mehra
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AFP via Getty Images
People work at a landfill in India that's full of plastic bags. Members of the United Nations are negotiating a treaty that's aimed at cutting plastic pollution globally.

Plastic waste is everywhere. Each year, around 400 million metric tons of it end up in landfills and places like oceans, rivers and shorelines. The trash breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastics that have made their way into every corner of the environment and even into human bodies.

The problem is getting worse. So last year the United Nations set out to write a legally binding agreement to deal with the issue. That decision by U.N. member states "will clearly take us towards a future with no plastic pollution," Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, Japan's then-environment minister, said at the time.

This week, negotiators from around 150 countries are gathering in Kenya to start hashing out the treaty's details. Outside groups are there too, trying to influence the talks, including public health advocates, human rights activists, environmentalists and the oil and gas industry.

Almost every piece of plastic is made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels. Now, there's growing concern among those who want deep cuts in plastic waste that plastic producers and some consumer goods companies could weaken the treaty.

A constellation of groups trying to shape the negotiations can be traced back to the oil and gas industry. That includes some of the world's largest oil and gas companies, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and France's TotalEnergies. And major oil-producing nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, are at the negotiating table. They push a similar message: The problem of plastic pollution can be solved through recycling and other forms of waste management rather than through substantial cuts in new plastic production.

But years of research and investigations, including by NPR, have shown that recycling is failing to rein in plastic waste. Reducing how much new plastic gets made in the first place is a "prerequisite" to getting pollution under control, says Carsten Wachholz, who works at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and co-leads the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty.

The fossil fuel industry has a track record of slowing environmental action. In the 1990s, it worked to make sure the United States didn't ratify the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to reduce climate pollution. And at last year's U.N. climate summit in Egypt, countries agreed to a watered-down final agreement after oil- and gas-producing nations beat back calls for a phaseout of fossil fuels, the main driver of global warming.

The challenge in these negotiations is coming up with a plan that's effective in cutting plastic waste and that also gets buy-in from all the countries involved. "The worst-case scenario is that some of the oil- and gas-producing countries would say, 'This is so [diametrically opposed] to our interests, we will drop out,'" Wachholz says.

The U.S. was the world's biggest oil and gas producer in 2022, and the State Department, too, has called for recycling to play a big part in the plastics treaty — or risk having it fall flat.

"An agreement that relies solely on production caps might diminish participation in a future agreement, as well as the ambition of the agreement itself, thereby risking progress toward our common goal of addressing plastic pollution," a spokesperson said in a statement last week.

An oil pump jack stands near a field of wind turbines in Texas. Almost every piece of plastic is made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels.
Brandon Bell / Getty Images
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Getty Images
An oil pump jack stands near a field of wind turbines in Texas. Almost every piece of plastic is made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels.

Plastics are crucial for fossil fuel producers

Plastic threads through every aspect of modern life, from food wrappers to medical devices, from cigarette butts to disposable diapers. Plastic production is on track to triple by 2060, while the amount of waste that's being dumped in the environment continues to soar.

Oil and gas companies see the petrochemical sector, which includes plastics, as crucial to their bottom line. As climate-friendly technologies like electric vehicles grow more popular, the oil and gas sector faces a future of declining demand for products such as gasoline and diesel fuel, demand for which is expected to peak later this decade.

But oil and gas demand for petrochemicals will keep rising for years, according to Wood Mackenzie, a research and consulting firm. Growing production of petrochemicals "keeps oil demand high," says Alan Gelder, vice president of refining, chemicals and oil markets at Wood Mackenzie.

That's one major reason the fossil fuel industry has a big stake in the outcome of the negotiations. If countries agree to big cuts in plastic manufacturing, it could deal a blow to the industry's future profits.

Facing a public backlash over plastic pollution, the oil and gas industry has been spreading through multiple channels its message of continuing new plastic production and recycling waste. Sometimes, individual companies speak out. In 2019, BP said that strict plastic regulations "could significantly reduce the growth of oil demand." And earlier in 2023, ExxonMobil said plastic waste can be solved without reducing how much plastic society uses.

But the industry is also working through powerful associations to influence treaty negotiations — and broader public perceptions. One organization is an industry advocacy group called American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. This summer, it told the U.N. committee leading the negotiations that it opposes limits on plastic production. Instead, it wants countries to focus on recycling.

The group didn't respond to messages seeking comment. Its public website doesn't identify its members. But ExxonMobil, Chevron and Phillips 66 have said in recent years that they are part of the organization.

Another group connected to oil companies, including ExxonMobil, is the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Formed in 2019, the alliance also includes consumer goods companies such as Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo. At a 2022 U.N. meeting, the group was singled out for praise for its work on plastic.

The alliance promotes recycling and cleanup efforts rather than making less new plastic. Allison Lim, the group's vice president of corporate and public affairs, says it is not authorized by its members to focus on the issue of new plastic production. "What we are doing now is really trying to promote circularity," Lim says, referring to the idea of recycling and reusing plastic for as long as possible to prevent waste.

Plastic bottles cover the Kalamu River in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018.
John Wessels / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Plastic bottles cover the Kalamu River in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018.

Oil and gas companies push recycling

Oil and gas companies have spent decades touting recycling as a solution to the plastic waste problem. Yet reporting reveals they knew that the economics of recycling don't make sense and that recycling wouldn't keep waste from piling up in landfills and the environment. Despite years of advertising campaigns and municipal efforts, less than 10% of plastic waste gets recycled globally.

The problem is that making new plastic is almost always cheaper than collecting and recycling used material. Recycling plastic also requires a lot of energy, and some plastic waste can't be recycled at all, says Bethanie Carney Almroth, a professor of ecotoxicology at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Yet the idea of a circular economy for plastic — using, recycling and reusing material — is central to the U.N. negotiations, in part because, for now, it's hard to imagine a world without plastic, says Winnie Lau, who leads a project at the Pew Charitable Trusts to keep plastic waste out of oceans.

But Marcos Orellana, the U.N. special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, says a circular economy is "wishful thinking" at best. "In the worst case, it's the design of a misinformation campaign intended to confuse the population," he says.

During negotiations in Paris in June, Orellana and a colleague issued a public warning aimed at negotiating countries and other stakeholders: "False and misleading solutions" like recycling "aggravate the plastic threat," they said in a statement. "There is an urgent need to prioritise reduction in production and use of plastic, detoxification and reducing greenhouse gas emissions," they added.

Chickens wade in water that is littered with plastic waste on the island of Mayotte off the coast of southeastern Africa.
Philippe Lopez / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Chickens wade in water that is littered with plastic waste on the island of Mayotte off the coast of southeastern Africa.

A newcomer to the plastics industry pitches its own solution to clean up waste

There's another voice promoting recycling that, at first glance, doesn't appear to have ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Verra is a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that is the world's biggest certifier of carbon credits or offsets, which are increasingly used in the global economy. Carbon credits allow companies that produce or use fossil fuels to pay for things like preserving or planting forests that absorb carbon dioxide. The idea is that actions such as saving forests could offset the climate pollution that the corporations generate. Verra's role in the carbon market is to set standards for the credits that companies buy, helping make sure that those credits actually reduce emissions.

Verra is now weighing in on the plastics negotiations. Several years ago, Verra co-founded the 3R Initiative, whose members include the food-makers Danone and Nestlé, major users of plastic packaging. The group is promoting something called plastic credits.

Plastic credits would work like carbon credits. Companies could help pay for projects that recycle plastic or improve waste collection in exchange for credits. Those credits could then be used to help companies meet corporate pledges to reduce plastic waste.

Proponents of plastic credits say much of their value comes from making it more enticing to pick up trash. If groups can sell credits based on how much plastic waste they collect or recycle, then trash could become a valuable commodity. That, in turn, would fuel more collection and recycling so that groups would have more plastic credits to sell.

Joel Finkelstein, a Verra spokesperson, says reducing new plastic production is important. But plastic credits would funnel much-needed money toward waste cleanup. "It's not like there's some big pool of money existing to clean this up, right?" Finkelstein says. "The goal of it is we can take action today."

But concerns loom about plastic credits — and the players involved.

Orellana, the U.N. special rapporteur, says plastic credits look like a corporate effort to avoid strong regulations and limits on new plastic production. "It signals an attempt, one would say, of escaping strict controls and robust provisions in the reduction of plastic and instead trying to keep business as usual," he says.

Verra itself has roots leading back to the fossil fuel industry. Verra's founding members included the International Emissions Trading Association and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which around that time represented major oil and gas producers such as Shell, Chevron and BP, among other companies. At Verra's founding, the director of BP America's emissions markets group was a member of a steering committee for the nonprofit.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the International Emissions Trading Association said a predecessor of Verra was incubated at the association because companies were looking for new ways to invest in "natural climate solutions." The association's membership is open to "any company that shares our vision of using high integrity carbon markets to deliver climate targets," the spokesperson said. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development didn't respond to messages seeking comment.

Asked about Verra's connections with fossil fuel industry players, spokesperson Finkelstein says: "I don't think that's a smoking gun. It's something we're proud of. That this is a way to unlock finance."

"I question whether people would be willing to let plastic stay in the environment for the moral good of not engaging with people they don't like," Finkelstein adds. "I don't think we have the time or the ability to wait for that. I think we have to work aggressively with anyone who will work with us while pushing integrity to have the impact we need."

However, problems that have surfaced in carbon markets have shaken confidence in the idea of companies buying their way to less pollution.

Recent reporting found that a member of the 3R Initiative sold millions of worthless carbon credits because it overestimated how much climate pollution the projects absorbed. Verra issued those credits. In a statement about the reporting, Verra said it was "deeply disturbed by the allegations in this piece. Many of the details reported in this article are new to Verra and were only learned upon publication of the article. Therefore, we are initiating an investigation."

But experts remain concerned. "Over in carbon-credit land, these parties are embroiled in significant public controversy around the fundamental truthfulness and accuracy of their claims," says Danny Cullenward, a climate economist at the University of Pennsylvania. "And now they're saying, 'Let's do plastics.'"

A father and son on a makeshift boat in the Philippines collect plastic bottles to sell in Manila.
Noel Celis / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A father and son on a makeshift boat in the Philippines collect plastic bottles to sell in Manila.

Oil producers will fight to keep their plastics business

Despite the blowback, Verra is pushing hard to have plastic credits embedded in the U.N. treaty.

"We very much see plastic credits as able to be integrated with the global plastics treaty as it's a solution today," Verra spokesperson Finkelstein says.

Verra wants the treaty to recognize plastic credits as a tool for raising public and private investment in waste collection and recycling programs. Countries are considering setting up an investment fund to help pay for things like waste collection, and Verra says plastic credits should be used to track how the money is spent. And it suggested countries that have programs to make plastic producers pay for waste management could offer companies "the possibility of using Plastic Credits in lieu of paying [program] fees, which would drive finance directly to projects and reduce the government's administrative burden," Verra told the committee leading the plastics negotiations.

Finkelstein said in an email that plastic credits are meant to support — not compete with — national waste-management programs.

But Lau of the Pew Charitable Trusts worries the credits could deprive governments of badly needed funding.

Neil Tangri, science and policy director at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, an environmental justice group, says he's concerned that Verra is trying to privatize things that are supposed to be handled by governments negotiating the treaty.

Plastic credits weren't referenced in a document the U.N. published recently to help guide the negotiations. But "nothing stops a country from proposing it later," Tangri says, adding that countries could make plastic credits part of their own strategies to clean up waste.

What's clear is that oil-producing countries will fight to protect their business with the plastics industry.

Russia and China have argued that production cuts don't belong in a global plastics treaty. And Saudi Arabia said limiting the supply of plastics would "risk economic growth and stability." The countries are all participating in the negotiations.

In a statement, a State Department spokesperson said plastic pollution needs to be dealt with "at every stage of the plastic lifecycle, from its production to what happens downstream."

The treaty should include "meaningful and feasible universal obligations," the spokesperson said, adding that it is "essential" to develop "more circular approaches" to minimize waste, meaning recycling and redesigning products so they use fewer resources.

Lau says there's simply too much plastic for the world to recycle its way out of the problem. Mandatory cuts to production are critical, she says, as well as safeguards to ensure countries deliver on their promises.

"I am not a skeptic of business," Lau says. But she says the solutions that companies are pitching to governments need scrutiny. "If you don't have the right accountability mechanism and oversight mechanism in place, they could be designed to not work at all."

The U.N.'s goal is to finish the treaty negotiations next year.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.
Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.