Plastics, Fossil Fuels and Desire: A Dive into the Complexities of a Plastic-Free World

Article

It is now much more common to see people touting reusable bags, tumblers and bamboo straws in Singapore compared to a year or two ago. Food caterers are switching to reusable utensils, and plastic straws are slowly disappearing from our eateries[1]. Just last month, the government released a Zero Waste Masterplan, which aims to reduce our waste by 30%[2] close the loops on food, electronic and packaging waste. Yet, despite these moves and initiatives, deeper shifts need to happen: In the boldness of government policies, the direction of citizen efforts to creating change, and the perspectives of industry in seeing their role and power to move us towards a sustainable future—a future where humankind survives and hopefully thrives alongside the world we live in.

breathe
Teaser Image Caption
Breathe - Writer’s own artwork, 2018

Plastic, being a product of the fossil fuel industry, is intimately tied up with climate change. When cheap oil flooded the markets a few years ago, it became much cheaper to produce new plastic than to reuse or use recycled plastic[3]. Plastic is also inseparable from the packaging industry, and thus inseparable from almost all consumer goods on the market. With the dream life now being that of the YouTube/Instagram influencer, people are pushed to buy more products, usually with plastic packaging in some form, in the belief that those products will give them this dream life. Add to that a rising global middle class and growing global trade volumes, and the amount of plastic involved would boggle you. To make things even more stark, one recent study showed that degrading plastic (floating in the Pacific, for example) releases greenhouse gases more potent than carbon dioxide[4].

Of course, here in Singapore, most plastic waste is incinerated, leaving little behind. But we cannot solve the problem of plastic simply with better waste management systems or technology. Already, Semakau Landfill is expected to be full by 2035: a full ten years earlier than expected. Furthermore, some plastic still escapes the waste management system and ends up in our oceans. With more than 900,000 tonnes of plastic thrown last year, of which only 4% was recycled, the risk of our own waste piling up on our tiny island is very real. But, with Southeast Asian nations being one of the most responsible for marine plastic pollution, Singapore would be smart not to simply focus on her own shores. Even though Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines have already stepped up with regulations and policies, there is still much to be done. Thus, there is a great opportunity for Singapore to be a leader—in policy design and enforcement, creating a circular economy for plastics, waste management—which it has already begun to do with its Zero Waste Masterplan.

Fresh vegetables, fresh everyday
Fresh vegetables, fresh everyday.

Who has the power to create change?

We often frame the problem as a universal Humans versus Plastic fight, a war we have with plastic. Because of this, we seem to think that the problem lies with every human being’s actions in their day-to-day lives—which explains why the focus of campaigns in Singapore always tend to be about individual behaviour. It is about buying less or saying no to plastic bags or bringing your reusable grocery bag. The reality of the problem, however, is far more complex.

First, we must recognise that this fight is not actually a fight against plastic itself. It is a push against flawed systems we are entrenched in, our patterned ways of thinking and doing, and what our collective ideas of the good life are. It is about the system of plastic production and consumption, and in that system, there is an imbalance of power. Many organisations and people in positions of privilege have more power than others in deciding how plastic is produced, designed, distributed, used, reused, and recycled. Furthermore, a lot of plastic waste is from the process of making plastic products in the first place. One factory that produces plastic bags for retailers in Singapore wastes 20% of its plastic resins in every cycle of production[5]—even before the customer sees it. The burden of responsibility, then, lies heavier on corporations. As one customer, I can choose not to use plastic bags every time I shop, but a big supermarket chain like FairPrice or Giant could choose to stop providing plastic bags altogether. You could go even further with this: what if plastic companies worked with government to pivot away from making plastic bags for common use altogether? It is not just the behaviours of individuals that need to change, but the systems of plastic that needs to be changed for the better.

Truth to be told, citizens and households are doing a lot, already. They are feeding their children and schooling them, paying their electricity bills, ensuring they have savings for the future, doing things they love, supporting the elderly in their family and taking care of the sick. The last thing we need to be telling people is that they are not doing enough, because frankly, they have a million and one things to do. It is not about how much more effort we need to put into the environment. It is instead about how each of us can shift our efforts into changing the systems that we live in to become more aligned with a future that we want.

Jurong Island
An aerial view of Jurong Island, it has an integrated crude cracker and petrochemical complex, it is also one of the largest oil refineries in the world. It is slated to be further expanded.

Despite the need for change, and the many global campaigns advocating for change, not everyone wants this relationship with plastics to end. In 2014, ExxonMobil opened a new ethylene cracker plant in Singapore that is capable of producing 1.9 million tonnes of ethylene per year[6] —it is now being expanded, with the latest expansion expected to finish by 2023. In the States, an estimated $50 billion will be invested into new and expanded plastic production facilities, which will increase production by about 50% in the next decade and triple plastic exports by 2030[7]. In fact, global plastic production is projected to double in the next 15 years[8].

Why is this happening? With the world recognising that the continued use of fossil fuel is unfeasible if we want to keep to a 1.5°C world, oil and gas companies are banking on plastics to make up the revenue that they foresee losing when fossil fuels become stranded assets. Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest fossil fuel company, has sunk $69.1 billion into SABICO, a major chemical and plastics company. Big oil, gas and plastics companies have poured $200 billion into more than 300 petrochemical plants around the United States alone. They are also getting help from the government in the form of taxbreaks[9]. China has invested $100 billion into plants[10], and are planning to transform 40% of their oil into petrochemicals to feed the plastics industry—currently, petrochemicals only make 16% of current global oil demand[11].

A plastic-filled future is not any better than a fossil fuel world. They are equally devastating for humans.  Even though changing opinions, plastic bans and crackdowns on pollution worldwide mean that betting on plastic could very well backfire for these companies[12], these current expansions of plastic production could already spin the climate change crisis out of control.

As citizens, then, we need to focus our efforts on institutional change. Simply “voting with our dollar” is not enough. In Singapore, we need to use our voices to demand for serious change from businesses and government alike. Write into ExxonMobil and Shell, to FairPrice and Giant, to Members of Parliament. Talk to people with greater power to change the plastics system and urge them to move. Ask for accountability from our employers and our leaders. And if you are in a position of power, have the foresight to see that a fossil fuelled, plastic-filled future is not a future where humanity is going to thrive.

Right relationship with Plastic

Plastic is a brilliant invention. Through its uses in medicine, public health and in urban planning, it has likely saved many lives. A right relationship with it begins with acknowledging the importance of plastic. At the same time, a lot of the ways we use plastic today is non-essential. In fact, one could argue that by designing plastic to be used in such a careless and thoughtless way is disrespectful of the invention itself. It could be out there saving lives, but instead it is used to carry potato chips for 12 minutes. It is not the plastic that is the problem, but the way we choose to design it, source it, produce it and use it. A right relationship with plastic, then would be one that respects it by using it only for deep societal needs, like disease control or surgeries. We would design plastic in a way that it can be reused again and again, and design systems in a way that the concept of plastic waste itself no longer exists. We need to change the paradigms that surround what the good life is. In the current, mainstream idea of the good life, a LOT of plastic is involved (think of all the packaging), even if does not necessarily make the quality of life better. Perhaps, instead of thinking about material wealth as a measure of quality of life, we could look instead to community, in-depth experience and learning new skills as new measures of success. Does this sound naive to you, like building castles in the sky? But to change a system in the deepest way possible, we must look to the purposes, beliefs and paradigms that lie beneath it.

By using The Iceberg Model [13] below, we can analyse the problem of plastic.

the Iceberg Model
Using the iceberg model from systems thinking to analyse the problem of plastic.

Thus, this article is not about how we should increase the recycling rate of Singapore from the paltry 6% it is at now (most of which is recycled offshore, which is going to become increasingly difficult as countries ban the import of waste). It is also not about how citizens need to use more reusable bags for the grocery shopping. There has been more than enough written about how individuals and households (often branded “consumers” as if our sole purpose in life is to consume) should be doing more to sort our trash and reduce unnecessary plastic consumption. It is about looking at the underlying stories that drive behaviour and action. If the story of success in Singapore means having more money, buying more stuff, or that faster is better, is it little surprise that our systems and structures have been designed to fit these desires?

But what can I do about this?

The problem of plastic is complicated, as climate change is complicated. It is hard to say what the best thing you can do is. However, I think the best thing to do—and this will sound counterintuitive—is to build community. It doesn’t have to be a “green” community, either. Weave it into your day-to-day life: It could be just you and your friends and family, it could be your neighbours, your cycling buddies, your colleagues. Talk about plastics and climate change; think of creative ways to do free things together instead of spending money; share your resources (food, clothes, furniture, reusable bags, bamboo straws) with one another; write to your Members of Parliament together; learn new skills from one another. Innovate new ways of being!

If this is not enough, if there is a burning in your soul regarding this crisis, and it feels like there is nowhere to turn. Then I urge you to find a group that is working intensely toward deep and lasting systemic change. This could be your local Fossil Free movement or climate action group (350.org, Climate Strike), it could be businesses or NGOs (Ecosia, 50 Reefs, Forum for the Future, Amazon Watch, Mighty Earth). There will be other people there whose hearts are on fire about the climate crisis—and I can testify that in the doing and in the togetherness, there is hope.

The world tells us consistently that satisfaction lies in things or achievements. But, when we pause and reflect, it is the relationships that are the most precious, that rejuvenate us. When you rely on people, you need less things. When you are fulfilled, you have energy to shift the systems that need shifting. When you are facing a challenge together, it is easier to keep going.

Let’s keep going!

REFERENCES

 

[1] Kiew, J. (4 June, 2019). Over 270 F&B outlets won't give out plastic straws from July 1. Retrieved October, 2019, from The Straits Times:https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/over-270-fb-outlets-wont-give-out-plastic-straws-from-july-1

[2] Incineration ash and non-incinerable waste that is sent to Semakau Landfill. Ministry of Environment and Water Resources. (2019). Retrieved from Towards Zero Waste: https://www.towardszerowaste.sg/images/zero-waste-masterplan.pdf

[3] Kramer, S. (6 April, 2016). The one thing that makes recycling plastic work is falling apart. Retrieved October, 2019, from Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/low-oil-prices-hurt-plastics-recycling-2016-4?IR=T

[4] University of Hawaii at Manoa. (2018, August 1). Degrading plastics revealed as source of greenhouse gases. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 5, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180801182009.htm   

[5] CNA Insider. (5 April, 2018). The Big Plastic Waste | Talking Point | CNA Insider [Video File]  Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gUEls7tOoY

[6] This plant is a direct crude cracker, turning various kinds of crude oil into polyethylene, the most common plastic found in plastic bags, shampoo bottles etc.   ExxonMobil. (20 May, 2019). Singapore Chemical Plant. Retrieved from ExxonMobil Chemical: https://www.exxonmobil.com.sg/en-sg/Company/Overview/Who-we-are/Singapore-Chemical-Plant

[7] Day, K., & Hodges, T. (2 May, 2018). The Link Between Fossil Fuels, Single-Use Plastics, and Climate Change. Retrieved from Surf Rider: https://www.surfrider.org/coastal-blog/entry/the-link-between-fossil-fuels-single-use-plastics-and-climate-change

[8] Tullo, A. H. (20 February, 2019). Why the future of oil is in chemicals, not fuels. Retrieved from Chemical & Engineering News: https://cen.acs.org/business/petrochemicals/future-oil-chemicals-fuels/97/i8

[9] Lim, X. (30 September, 2019). How Fossil Fuel Companies Are Killing Plastic Recycling. Retrieved from HuffPost: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/plastic-recycling-oil-companies-landfill_n_5d8e4916e4b0e9e7604c832e

[10] Kaskey, J. (5 June, 2019). The Backlash to Plastic Has Oil Companies Worried. Retrieved from Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-05/plastic-trash-crackdown-threatens-oil-giants-chemical-lifeline

[11] McKay, D. (10 October, 2019). Fossil fuel industry sees the future in hard-to-recycle plastic. Retrieved from The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/fossil-fuel-industry-sees-the-future-in-hard-to-recycle-plastic-123631

[12] Kaskey, J. (5 June, 2019). The Backlash to Plastic Has Oil Companies Worried. Retrieved from Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-05/plastic-trash-crackdown-threatens-oil-giants-chemical-lifeline,

Mohamed, T. (6 June, 2019). Oil giants are pivoting to plastic, which could backfire amid a growing crackdown. Retrieved from Markets Insider: https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/oil-companies-pivot-to-plastics-threatened-by-government-crackdown-2019-6-1028259870

[13] Ecochallenge.org (n.d.) Iceberg model: Learn about the theory and practice of Systems Thinking. Retrieved November, 2019, from Ecochallenge.org: https://ecochallenge.org/iceberg-model/