U.S. Plastics: Where are your bottle, wrap, and jug from?
Responsible Alpha sought to visualize the pathway plastics take from producer to consumer in the U.S.. In this dashboard, one can use the filters to determine things like what companies are producing the plastics and what are the majority of types of plastics being produced.
The Chemical Coast, along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, is where 84% of U.S. plastics production, across the sector’s supply chain, is located (see Table 1 below).
In 2019, the largest plastics producers included ExxonMobil, Dow, LyondellBasell, Westlake Chemical, and Formosa Plastics
HDPE, PVC, Polypropylene, and LLDPE are the resins or end-product plastics produced in the greatest quantity. They make our laundry detergent containers, PVC pipes, single-use drink cups, jugs, and plastic wraps.
Benzene is a beginner chemical in the production of end-product plastics labeled “other”, which include baby formula bottles. Benzene is a known human carcinogen.
Since 1950, companies have made more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic, the equivalent of 2 billion African elephants. Discarded packaging accounts for 46% (158 million tonnes) of total annual plastic waste generation (Geyer 2020 and UNEP 2021). Most plastic packaging waste comes from household waste. Waste plastic packaging is polluting our oceans, air, and land.
Single-use plastics may be the lasting monument of our time.
Looking into the details, total percent of plastic consumption per type 2002-2014 was:
14% plastic bags and similar (LDPE – low density polyethylene).
10% plastic bottles (PET - Polyethylene terephthalate) – 482 billion PET bottles were sold globally in 2018.
9% plastic jugs (HDPE – high density polyethylene).
8% wraps (polypropylene).
2% cartons (polystyrene) (UNEP 2021).
The annual plastics carbon budget is currently equivalent to 6% up to 9% of all oil and gas emissions (Carbon Tracker 2020). If business as usual continues, plastics production may climb to 13% of the remaining global carbon budget by 2050 (CIEL 2019).
In fact, it is impossible to meet the 2050 Paris Agreement commitments if we continue at current plastics production levels using fossil fuel energy with fossil fuel feedstocks to make the plastics we use (CIEL 2019).
A recent review by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) revealed that out of 3,377 chemicals potentially associated with plastic packaging and 906 likely associated with it, 68 were ranked by ECHA as “highest for human health hazards” and 68 as “highest for environmental hazards” (Groh et al. 2019).
Scientists are clear that plastics and plastic packaging use have negative environmental outcomes – from global warming to toxicity – yet they are also clear that through improving product design, use, and waste management, there can be significant benefits.
What are plastics and where are they from in the U.S.?
So, let’s ask some simple questions:
What is plastic?
Where is it produced in the U.S.?
Plastics refer to synthetic polymers, consisting of repeated long-chains of smaller hydrocarbons. These smaller hydrocarbons form long chains after their feedstock – almost always ethylene, propylene, and other chemicals sourced from fossil fuels – is treated with another set of chemicals called intermediate chemicals.
While plastics grew in importance in the global economy starting in the 1920s and 1930s with the invention of things like Teflon, the modern plastics industry is a complex chemical engineering manufacturing process. Facilities are clustered together so companies can easily send chemicals from one refinery to the next to produce the plastic packaging.
As you can see in our dashboard, plastics production has three key steps:
Step 1: Basic Chemicals: Cracking fossil fuels into monomers such as ethylene and propylene, the building blocks of most plastics.
Step 2: Intermediates: Polymerising these monomers using a catalyst.
Step 3: Plastics: Processing polymers into plastic resins we are familiar with.
Because of the health and environmental concerns plastics bring, there are significant ESG considerations when it comes to the continuing production of plastics. For example, chronic and acute physical risks from climate change, such as sea-level rise, storm surge risk from increasing extreme weather events, and soil subsidence can impact facility utilization rates while incurring potential financial risks. Louisiana, a major player in plastic production, has lost 1,900 square miles from sea-level rise and soil subsidence since the 1930s.
In addition to this, toxic chemicals often are also released during plastic production including chemicals such as benzene (European Chemicals Agency), which is a known human carcinogen. Other toxic chemicals released during production can cause negative health impacts such as endocrine disruption, asthmas, diabetes, and many other detrimental impacts on human health. Cancer Alley, along the lower Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, has nearly 150 oil refineries, plastics plants, and chemical facilities. Cancer Alley has a higher risk of cancer than much of the U.S. (Grist 2021).
Moreover, nurdles are lentil-sized pellets that are the foundation of most everyday plastic products. Nurdles are heated and formed into the single-use plastic products we use – and throw away – bottles, wrap, film, plastic in clothes and other products. Nurdles are frequently spilled, entering the environment and food chains, e.g., via shellfish and commercial fisheries (Beaumont et al 2019, Smith et al 2018).
For example, on August 2nd, 2020, the container ship CMA CGM Bianca spilled 750 million nurdles in the Chemical Coast allegedly produced by Dow Chemical when a 40-ft container fell off the vessel’s deck after the vessel became adrift in New Orleans, Louisiana (DeSmog, August 28, 2020).
Nurdles are packed in 25 kg bags. 990 sacks per container, which equals 24.75 mt, with an average weight per nurdle of 0.033g, yielding about 750 million nurdles.
“I cried. It was that bad,” said Liz Marchio, National Parks Service science educator. “They were like snowdrifts piled up. Inches deep with the river sloshing around” (Baurick, September 5, 2020). This is just one story of plastic polluting our environment.
The graph below shows the amount of capacity in kilotons of the company in 2019 for the different chemicals along the three-stage process - from basic chemicals to intermediates to resins - that result in the plastics we use today. Capacity is adjusted for joint ventures and privately-held investments and companies.
Table 1: U.S. plastic production, 2019 capacity. Sources: Bloomberg Finance L.P., NexantECA data accessed via Bloomberg Finance L.P., Moody’s Bureau van Dijk Orbis, corporate filings, and U.S. counties layers via Living Atlas of the World, ESRI. Accessed February 2022.
Acronyms are dimethyl terephthalate (DMT), ethylene dichloride (EDC), propylene oxide (PO), purified terephthalate acid (PTA), vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), expandable polystyrene (EPS), high density polyethylene (HDPE), low density polyethylene (LDPE), linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and styrene butadiene rubber (SBR).
Dashboard data is based on published U.S. facility-level 2019 capacity data sourced via Bloomberg Finance L.P. and NexantECA accessed February 2022. Corporate structuring (e.g., joint ventures) from Bloomberg Finance L.P., Moody’s Bureau van Dijk Orbis, and corporate filings accessed February 2022. Layers written into ArcGIS using ESRI overlays July and August 2022.