The Plastic Waste Makers Index 2023 brings the benchmark up to date with data up to the end of 2021 (the first edition covered 2019). It found that the global population used 139 MMT (million metric tonnes) of single-use plastics in 2021, up from 133 MMT in 2019.
The composition of the top 20 petrochemical companies with the largest plastic waste footprint is strikingly similar to the first PWMI. US-based ExxonMobil remains the largest producer of polymers for single-use plastics – responsible for 6.0 MMT in 2021 alone – followed by China’s Sinopec (5.8 MMT) and US-based Dow in third place (5.3 MMT).
Among the report’s key recommendations is a strong call for investors and financial institutions to use engagement, proxy voting and divestment strategies to put pressure on petrochemical companies building new fossil fuel-based polymer production facilities.
The largest emitters of greenhouse gases associated with single-use plastics are also the largest producers of polymers. According to data analysed by the Carbon Trust and Wood Mackenzie, greenhouse gas emissions from single-use plastics are equivalent to around 450 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, more than the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
The Index finds that while recycling offers a solution to both the climate and waste crises – when compared to the production of polymers from fossil fuels, the production of polymers from (mechanically) recycled plastic waste could also displace at least half of greenhouse gas emissions – recycling is not scaling up at the rate needed to reduce reliance on fossil fuel plastics. From 2019 to 2021, growth in the mass of single-use plastics from virgin polymer outpaced that from recycled feedstock by a factor of fifteen to one (6 MMT versus 0.4 MMT).
KPMG provided limited assurance on the analysis in the report, which offers some cautious hope for the petrochemical industry to play a role in the transition away from a fossil fuel-based plastics economy. Taiwan’s Far Eastern New Century and Thailand’s Indorama Ventures have made significant commitments to increase their recycling efforts and are already producing high quality recycled polymers on an industrial scale.
The research also examines how the circularity scores compare with the public claims of the top 20 polymer producers. Saudi Aramco, Borealis, Dow and Braskem stand out in terms of the mismatch between their high frequency of public claims about plastics circularity and their actual circularity scores.