Are we locked into a plastic future?

Guest Blog from Miriam Diamond and Zhanyun Wang (originally published Oct. 13/20 at Toronto Star and posted here by permission of the authors)

The federal government recently (re)announced its intention to ban several single use plastics as part of the government’s commitment of reducing plastic waste to zero by 2030.

A day earlier, Alberta signalled its intention to increase the province’s capacity for recycling plastic, in line with the government’s commitment to bolster the plastic industry.
Again, the federal and Alberta governments appear to be at odds with each other. And we are all the losers as our climate is warming at twice the global rate, which fundamentally undermines our prosperity and social stability, and plastic pollution extends from coast-to-coast-to-coast and all place in between.

We argue that curbing climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution are interconnected and both must be tackled by reducing oil and plastic production. But the obstacle against taking such action is the problem of “lock-in.”

“Lock-in” and more specifically “carbon lock-in” perpetuates fossil fuel production and use through infrastructure support, even when cost-effective alternatives exist and external costs to society mount.

The infrastructure is both “hard” — extraction, refineries and pipelines — and “soft” — institutional investments to build up and maintain the infrastructure. Gregory Unruh of George Mason University, who coined the term “lock-in,” has called this a “techno-institutional complex” that maintains the market for fossil fuels and causes chronic failures of policies aimed to shift from fossil fuel use.

Global “carbon lock-in” has resulted in the continued growth in fossil fuel production, although global supply exceeded demand and halved oil prices in 2014. Unfazed by weakened global demand or the external costs of climate change caused by fossil fuels, the global oil and gas industry not only continues production, but also to invest in what many believe will be “stranded assets.”

For example, proponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline, notably the Alberta government with its commitment of $1.5 billion investment and $6-billion in a loan guarantee, continue to build this pipeline to bring high-cost Alberta oilsands’ crude to Gulf Coast refineries.

Given an oversupply and low prices, fossil fuel producers are seeking profitable alternatives to using their product as a fuel. They are among those who have invested more than $200 billion in the past decade into new facilities for producing feedstocks for plastics and other petrochemicals in the U.S.

Companies such as Exxon Mobile and Shell are hoping for a 40 per cent increase in plastic production. Plastics among the largest industries in the province with total revenues of $6.3 billion in 2015. Plastic product is converting “oil lock-in” into “plastic lock-in.”

However, now even the prices for many plastics have declined. Concerns about “plastic lock-in” and a glut of cheap plastic revolve around ballooning plastic waste, of which just the U.S. alone exported more than 1 million tonnes to 96 countries in 2019 due to its inability to deal with this massive problem. Will Alberta welcome this plastic waste for recycling, only to convert it back into plastic?

Rather than just seeking to ban single use plastics, we need to break the bonds of the “lock-in” effect. First, we need to have integrated policies addressing fossil fuel (and plastic) supply and demand.

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Miriam Diamond is a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences with cross-appointments to the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, School of the Environment, Department of Geography and Program in Planning, and the Physical and Environmental Sciences Program at Scarborough College.  She also sits on CELA’s Board of Directors.

Zhanyun Wang is a senior research fellow at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. His research interests focus primarily on the lifecycle and risks of organic chemicals in the anthroposphere and natural environment, as well as on sound chemicals management.