Plastic: a 100% capitalist problem

12 August, 2021

Plastic in a fisher's beach
Plastic in a fisher's beach

Right now there are over 7.4 billion tons of plastic on the planet and it is estimated that by 2050 there will be 40 billion tons. In 2010 alone between 5 and 13 million tons of plastic wound up in the seas and oceans. The EU insists on selling us a “circular solution” and the press reassures us with miraculous technologies and bacteria. But the problem of plastic and its pollution is cumulative… and it is accelerating further with the Green Deal. The causes are not to be sought in the technology or processes themselves, but in the very heart of the capitalist system.

Table of Contents

The Green Deal will usher in more plastic, not less

Cumulative plastic waste generation and disposal

Plastics are not only resistant to degradation by physical and biological agents, they are also difficult to collect when they are scattered in the environment. They cause the death of animals by ingestion and pollute soil and water with the chemicals that are often added to them and with their own decay products. Therefore, as we can see in the graph above, the minimal degradation of plastic coupled with the increase in new waste means that the total stock of plastics will increase over the next few decades under all scenarios.

Everyone, virtually everywhere in the world, has witnessed the absurd proliferation of plastics in food packaging. Food packaging has moved on to turn the simplest products into veritable matrioshkas of plastic: boxes containing trays which in turn hold envelopes.

A walk through the shelves of any supermarket is all it takes to understand that the large plastic market does not seem to respond to any human need.

The causes of the proliferation of this material are multiple and, as we will see below, they are related to the entire structure of the productive apparatus, but one of the forces driving the multiplication of plastics today is directly related to the strategies of the oil industry to adapt to the Green Deal:

The International Energy Agency forecasts that by 2050, 50% of oil demand growth will be related to petrochemicals, surpassing the growth in oil demand related to automobile transportation.

ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco, which are among the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, are betting big on plastics. In its latest investor report, ExxonMobil acknowledged a sharp decline in gasoline demand. The company hopes to help fill the gap with chemicals and predicts a 30% increase in demand by 2025. A recent investor article published by Bank of America Merrill Lynch was titled “The future of oil is paved with plastic.”

This shift is already underway. The oil and gas glut has contributed to a frenzy of pipeline construction aimed at shipping ever-larger quantities of fossil fuels to the coasts, where facilities distill the chemical compounds needed for plastic production.

The American Chemistry Council reports that since 2010, plans have been announced for 333 new chemical manufacturing facilities in the United States, representing more than $200 billion in capital investment; the industry association notes that “much of the investment is geared toward export markets for chemicals and plastics.” The result of this increased production is that it is now cheaper than ever to produce single-use plastic for consumer packaging, the primary end-use of plastic.

However, this does not tell us where the huge market for these plastics comes from, in order to find out, we need to look on a larger scale at how production is organized in one of the largest consuming sectors of plastic packaging, the food sector.

The petrochemical industry and its integration in the organization of large-scale production

Pizzas, meat products and ready meals in a German chain supermarket in the USA. All wrapped in plastic.
Pizzas, meat products and ready meals in a German chain supermarket in the USA. All wrapped in plastic.

Where did the proliferation of plastic packaging and plastic trays come from?

Attempts to place and profitably utilize huge masses of capital in the agricultural sector led to a large-scale transformation of food production in recent decades. After land concentration, the difficulties of capital “absorption” by primary production led to the proliferation of an entire food processing and reprocessing industry, as well as huge investments in medium- and long-distance transportation and distribution… as well as the semi-slavery of many agricultural workers.

Read also: What Covid reveals about agriculture and food, 3/31/2020

All this came hand in hand with a campaign of precarization and atomization of labor in the other productive sectors. In many countries, workers began to eat less and less socially in groups or at home and came to rely on takeout or prepared food.

The pressure to stack up part-time jobs on the part of many working women, who were and still are in most cases the people preparing food in the home environment, increased the dependence of the family diet on prepared and processed food. The result was disastrous for public health in countries such as the USA: an epidemic of metabolic syndrome among workers that not only remains prevalent today but expands with the US food industry to countries such as Mexico and combines with Covid to increase mortality.

Read also: The economy's health parasitizes that of workers and society as a whole, 5/20/2021

The only needs satisfied by the development of industrial food are those of accumulation: to find a profitable placement for agrarian capital and to make the labor force more precarious. And now, in addition, also to find a profitable placement for petrochemical overproduction.

Do we need plastic to prevent food from spoiling?

"Fresh" food in a US supermarket. All inside plastic wrappers and plastic boxes.
“Fresh” food in a US supermarket. All inside plastic wrappers and plastic boxes.

Petrochemical companies tell us that plastic packaging “keeps food from spoiling,” but while this may be true for individual commodities in an abstract sense, it is absolutely false in the context of the current productive system.

Current food production causes much of the food produced to be wasted in inefficiencies that are only socially “acceptable” because the only criterion of efficiency is that of the return on investment.

Studies indicate that current food production causes much of the food produced to be wasted in inefficiencies that are only socially “acceptable” because the only criterion of efficiency is that of the return on investment.

In China alone 350 million tons of food -nearly 30% of total production- is wasted along production and distribution chains before reaching retail, and an additional 45 million tons are wasted due to eating out and takeout. It’s not that there isn’t enough food to feed everyone, it’s that capital lives by throwing food in the trash.

Not just plastic

So-called "yellow dust" has become a seasonal weather phenomenon in Northern China and Korea. Pictured is Seoul, South Korea.
So-called “yellow dust” has become a seasonal weather phenomenon in Northern China and Korea. Pictured is Seoul, South Korea.

But the effects of this effort to divert oil production to petrochemicals are not confined to plastics. The concentration of huge numbers of people in cities has caused all sorts of air pollution problems, the air columns over large cities and industrial regions have become huge chemical reactors where air circulation and local geography facilitate all sorts of complex reactions between polluting gases, particles that serve as catalysts, and water vapor.

Concentrations of gases, droplets and condensed particles can be found above all major cities, but almost nowhere are they as impressive and common as in northern China and the Korean peninsula.

Vehicle and factory emissions are generally blamed for this, but restrictions and reductions in emissions from these sources are failing to have an effect on pollutants such as ozone. The origin in reality of this unexpected source of ozone precursors is not to be found in vehicles but in the expansion of petrochemical industry products in their quest for alternative profitability.

The culprits include short-chain hydrocarbons and terpenes, substances originally produced by plants to repel insects and the basis of plant fragrances – such as lemon (limonene) – now produced synthetically.

These substances are found in really high amounts in personal care products, cleaning products, adhesives and other derivatives of the petrochemical industry and lead to reactions which generate ozone precursors and other forms of photochemical pollution as they concentrate in the atmosphere above cities.

The capitalist non-solution

Illustration of the EU Circular Economy Plan
Illustration of the EU Circular Economy Plan

The trendy solution among the bourgeoisie is the “circular economy”. The idea is for industrialized recycling of plastic to “add value” by transforming it into something more profitable. The fact that the emphasis is placed on recycling and not on its degradability foretells upcoming disasters.

Plastics are made by forming long chains (polymers) from assembling small individual molecules (monomers), this is nowadays carried out with short molecules such as ethylene (two carbon atoms joined by a double bond) which is the product that serves as the basis for making PVC, polystyrene and polyethylene.

One of the problems is that these reactions are not really reversible; one cannot disassemble the original chains without losing several of the mechanical and chemical properties of the original plastic. This is by no means an unsolvable problem, every week publications come out about new processes to synthesize recyclable and reversible plastics, but the problem was never really technical or scientific.

The point is that recycling is not industrially and economically profitable. Much of the action has been limited to raising taxes and tariffs against plastics that fail to contain a certain percentage of recycled resin, as in the United Kingdom. As expected, the whole effect boils down to pushing the use of a new component in the mix – recycled resin – and raising prices slightly. Nothing else changes.

The dream is, of course, to produce new, more profitable products from plastic waste but, as the companies admit, the market for such products is almost necessarily much smaller than that for the original plastic packaging. For now there are plans, for instance, to recycle waste plastic to produce sulfonated electronic components for solar panels and other applications, the production of which would obviously be limited to a few capital-concentrated centers.

This brings us to the second problem. Under the current mode of production, production capacity is concentrated in a few huge plants in the hands of a few capitals. If countries with weak economies already serve as dumping grounds for plastics from the rest of the world, it is highly unlikely for them to have the capacity in the future to profitably recycle the tons of plastic they receive or use, or that it will be profitable for large national capitals to transport this plastic for processing at the other end of the world with a limited market.

The problem has always been social and not a “technological curse” as certain champions of reactionary anti-capitalism would have us believe. The need to valorize capital pushes the use of certain chemical processes over other alternative processes that are just as functional or even better, and also pushes to concentrate production in absurdly huge plants.

Read also: Under Communism... Won't there be big chemical plants and gigantic heavy industrial factories?, 9/4/2021

For instance, the production of plastics requires separating small double-bonded molecules from their single-bonded precursors. Today this is carried out in large distillation towers where, for example, ethylene (plastics precursor) is separated from ethane after liquefying the blend of the two at low temperatures. This process alone expends 0.3% of global energy production.

Chemistry per se has not doomed the world, but rather the fact is that capitalism promotes a certain type of chemistry to fulfill its social goals and maintain its dominance over production and social labor.

It is perfectly possible to separate mixtures of plastic precursor gasses without distilling them while expending ten times less energy, using materials that selectively let one or the other flow through, but it is much more profitable for capital to keep setting up big towers and concentrating production.

It’s true, the new processes are more advanced, uses less energy and can be carried out on much smaller and more distributed scales, but all these things are a drawback for capital. Capital wants to be able to concentrate a million square meters of material (literally, not figuratively) in a tower in order to scale up. In the same concentrated vein, China announced construction of the world’s largest polypropylene fabrication reactor this spring.

Chemistry per se has not doomed the world, but rather the fact is that capitalism promotes a certain type of chemistry to fulfill its social goals and maintain its dominance over production and social labor.

Once again, there appears the growing antagonism between human needs and capital accumulation

Cynically, scientific journals describe plastic pollution as a “Faustian bargain” struck by “Humanity”, while labeling the ingestion of plastics by animals as an “evolutionary trap”.

It is rather the other way around, the plastic problem is the result of the denial of Humanity’s needs in favor of the needs of capital accumulation. This is not something caused by some ahistorical human nature. It is not animals but capitalism, which is showing itself to have fallen into a textbook “evolutionary trap” in which every “adaptation” makes the overall situation worse.

And it’s not really a problem particular to plastics, it’s a problem in the arrangement of social work. Were all plastic packaging to be replaced tomorrow by cardboard or paper packaging, the siphoning off of Humanity’s social labor into the large-scale manufacture of a bunch of packaging that only serves to maintain the precarization of workers on a large scale and fuel the race of capital towards worsening general conditions would be just as obscene and criminal. What is crucial is not the material out of which the packaging is made, it is the society which produces it.

The plastic problem can only be understood in that general context which cuts across all facets of the relationship between human beings with each other and with the environment they inhabit: the growing antagonism between human needs and accumulation. And the fact is that “environmental” problems such as plastic or climate change are nothing more than the environmental expressions of the system’s inability to generate human development during its historical decline.