As western vacationers escape their daily grind and head to the beach this summer, a concern is likely to resurface — literally, if it washes up on the pristine sand in front of them. In the past two years, plastic litter in the ocean seems to have eclipsed other environmental anxieties among rich-world consumers.
Harrowing images of sea life ensnared in plastic bags, as depicted in “Blue Planet II,” the 2017 TV series presented by Sir David Attenborough, would be enough to make anyone choke on the plastic straw in their piña colada — if, that is, you were offered one. Politicians everywhere are responding to voters’ demands by banning straws, stirrers and other single-use plastics. The United Nations says that last year 127 countries had restrictions on plastic bags.
The plastics industry can expect ever more curbs on its products, a trend that will force businesses involved to reshape. Bottles, boxes, films and the like consume nearly half of global output of the polymers on which they rely. Many companies in the $375 billion plastic-packaging value chain — composed of producers of oil and gas (the main feedstocks), petrochemicals giants, packaging firms and consumer brands — look ill-prepared.
Companies at either end of the chain are the least vulnerable.
Beverage-makers will happily switch from oil-derived plastic to recycled stuff for their bottles — or to aluminum cans — so long as the numbers add up (which they do when high oil prices push up the cost of virgin plastic). Even so, ExxonMobil or Coca-Cola cannot relax. Seema Suchak of Schroders, an asset manager, estimates that fizzy-drinks firms that fail to reduce their reliance on virgin plastics could see annual profits shrink by 5% over the next decade or so because of regulations and taxes spurred by the consumer backlash.
Plastic-packaging firms could suffer more. Then there is the petrochemicals industry. In a much-cited analysis from 2016, consultants at McKinsey calculated that the value of plastic disposed after a single use is $80 billion to $120 billion a year. Reducing that number could benefit society but harm purveyors of the virgin materials.
Firms are cagey about the extent of such efforts to use recycled plastics and other more eco-friendly alternatives. Industry analysts suspect it is not large.
But people are easily persuaded that an eyesore despoiling their holiday paradise is intolerable. Hard-nosed polymer bosses should remember that.