The global petrochemical industry has failed to expand production of sustainable plastics fast enough to replace those based on fossil fuels, falling short on expected contributions towards limiting greenhouse-gas emissions and ocean pollution, according to research by a non-profit organisation. An insufficient regulatory push means the top 20 firms – contributing half the global emissions from the consumption of single-use plastics – are on course to raise their capacity for virgin plastics by 3.4 per cent annually between 2021 and 2027, slower than the 3.9 per cent annual increase from 2005 to 2020, said a report by Minderoo Foundation published on Tuesday. “The top 20 petrochemical companies have collectively shown little progress and have a vested interest in maintaining the regulatory status quo,” wrote Dominic Charles and Laurent Kimman of the foundation, which was founded by Australian mining tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Forrest. “While public and political awareness of the plastics problem has increased markedly, it has so far failed to translate into meaningful impact on virgin polymer production.” The world generated 139 million tonnes of single-use plastic waste in 2021, the report estimated, up 6 million tonnes or 4.5 per cent from 2019. This means every human on the planet has generated an additional kilogram of the material in the two-year period, when the global economy was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Some 3 million tonnes of plastics recycling capacity is expected to come online by 2027, of which only 0.7 million tonnes will be added by petrochemical firms. Plastic, which takes hundreds of years to decompose, has been found in more than 60 per cent of all seabirds and in all sea turtle species, as an estimated 11 million tonnes of the material enter the oceans annually on top of around 200 million tonnes already in circulation, according to US-based Ocean Conservancy. “Single-use plastic is not only a pollution crisis but also a climate one,” the Minderoo report’s authors said. “ Cradle-to-grave (Scope 1, 2 and 3) greenhouse gas emissions from single-use plastics in 2021 were equivalent to 450 million [tonnes] of carbon dioxide, more than the total emissions of the United Kingdom.” Scope 1 emissions are produced by operations owned or controlled by a company, while scope 2 emissions are generated indirectly through externally bought energy. Scope 3 covers emissions from upstream and downstream activities, such as logistics, consumption of a company’s products and post-consumption waste treatment. Energy and commodities consultancy Wood Mackenzie and UK-based global climate consultancy Carbon Trust contributed to calculating the report’s emission figures. Sinopec and PetroChina, China’s two largest petrochemicals producers, ranked among the top seven contributors to global single-use plastic production and subsequent waste generation in 2021, the foundation found. In terms of full supply-chain greenhouse-gas emissions, Sinopec’s plastic production had the biggest footprint, while PetroChina ranked sixth. Is a global treaty the answer to Southeast Asia’s plastic problem? Sinopec attaches “great importance” to the issue, and was the first Chinese firm to join The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which includes more than 70 international industry players, a spokesman said. It is also expanding its plastic wastes collection and reuse effort, he said, adding Sinopec has started commercial production of three types of biodegradable plastics used in the consumer-goods, packaging , agriculture and medical fields. The energy giant’s Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gases emissions grew less than 1 per cent to 172.5 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalents in 2021 from 171 million tonnes in 2020, according to its sustainability report, which did not provide scope 3 emissions. Billions of plastic bits pouring into sea in Hong Kong, study shows The company, which aims to reach net-zero emissions on its own operations by 2050, said it captured 1.52 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2021, up from 1.29 million tonnes in 2020. “If we are truly serious about fighting plastic pollution and the climate crisis, governments must commit to negotiating a strong global plastics treaty that will deliver major reductions in plastic production, keep oil and gas in the ground, end single-use plastics, hold big polluters ... accountable for putting profits over people, and build refill and reuse systems,” said Graham Forbes, Greenpeace USA global plastics campaign leader. Minderoo called on petrochemicals makers to set net-zero climate targets for activities in the entire supply chain of their products, not just those directly related to their production. A UK start-up with global ambitions to replace plastic with seaweed alternative It also wants them to set a 2030 target to use a minimum of 20 per cent recycled feedstock in the production of plastic products, and to invest in plastic waste collection, sorting and recycling facilities. For policymakers, it recommends imposing a levy on fossil-fuel plastic production and consumption, and using the funds to expand recycling infrastructure. “Only strong regulatory intervention with economic incentives can solve what amounts to market failure,” it said.