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Production of single-use plastics is set to grow 30% in the next five years, fueling their contribution to global warming and ocean pollution,researchers said Tuesday as they published a list of companies that manufacture and fund throwaway plastic.
The first "Plastic Waste Makers Index," published by the Australia-based philanthropic Minderoo Foundation, calculated that 20 companies -- mainly energy and chemicals giants -- are the source of half of the world's single-use plastic waste.
Single-use plastics -- such as face masks, medical equipment, shopping bags, coffee cups and cling film -- are made from polymers, which use fossil fuels as a base material.
ExxonMobil topped the index of polymer producers generating single-use plastic waste, contributing 5.9 million tons in 2019, according to the report developed with energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie and researchers at think-tanks and universities.
The report said nearly 60% of the commercial finance for the single-use plastic industry comes from 20 global banks that have loaned almost $30 billion for polymer production since 2011.
In a foreword, former US Vice President Al Gore said the climate and plastic waste crises are "increasingly intertwined," with the atmosphere treated like an "open sewer" for planet-heating emissions and the ocean like a "liquid landfill" for plastic waste.
But as the electricity and transport sectors transition to clean energy, the companies that extract and sell fossil fuels are "scrambling to massively expand" their petrochemicals market, three-quarters of which is plastic production, he wrote.
On their current growth path, single-use plastics could be responsible for 5-10% of annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 if the world meets the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, they added.
The Minderoo Foundation said petrochemicals companies should be required to disclose their "plastic waste footprint" and commit to producing plastics from recycled plastic waste rather than fossil fuels.
It also called on banks and investors to shift their money away from companies that produce new fossil fuel-based virgin plastics to those that use recycled plastic feedstocks.
Sam Fankhauser, professor of climate change economics and policy at the University of Oxford's Smith School and a contributor to the report, said making clear the roles different companies play in the plastics value chain was important because most pressure so far has centered on retailers.
A plastic bag, for example, does not show the name of the petrochemicals firm that made its main ingredient but rather the supermarket whose goods it is designed to carry, he noted.
"We just don't know enough about that chain -- that allows people to hide behind it," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.