Plastic waste management

Report Jan. 5, 2021

In this article

Plastic waste management

Plastics are important to our society and should never end up as litter in our environment.

Addressing plastic waste

Overview

ExxonMobil shares society’s concern about plastic waste in the environment. Plastics provide significant sustainability benefits versus alternative materials, and will continue to play an important role in helping society mitigate greenhouse gas emissions (see sidebar below). They should not end up as litter, either in our oceans or anywhere else in the environment. Industry, governments, nongovernmental organizations and consumers must work collaboratively to encourage appropriate recycling, reuse and recovery of plastic waste.

Demand for plastics is increasing around the world at rates greater than GDP, due to the rapid growth in the global middle class and the many benefits that plastics bring to society. For example, plastics help provide for the safe production, distribution and preservation of food and water. They help reduce the weight of automobiles to improve fuel efficiency, which enables consumers to reduce their environmental footprint. And they are critical components to many life-saving products in the medical industry, including facemasks, shields and gowns for medical professionals treating patients with COVID-19 and other medical conditions (learn more in our COVID-19 case study).

Plastic waste in the environment is part of a larger issue related to global waste management infrastructure. At least 3 billion people worldwide lack access to formal waste disposal facilities. As a result, a significant amount of solid waste makes its way into the environment. According to a 2018 estimate from the World Bank, about 12 percent of the global municipal solid waste stream is plastic. 

ExxonMobil is taking action to help address plastic waste in the environment by increasing plastic recyclability and supporting improvements in plastic waste recovery, for example through our founding membership in the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. We are also working on advanced recycling solutions that create and capture value from plastic waste with opportunities for lower overall greenhouse gas emissions over the full lifecycle of the plastic. In addition, minimizing pellet loss from our operations is integral to our commitment to responsible operations.

Increasing plastic recyclability

ExxonMobil is creating innovative products that help society reduce plastic waste by meeting consumers' performance needs with less material, developing new materials for packaging that is more easily recycled and enabling customers to increase their recycled content. For example, our Vistamaxx™ performance polymers increase our customers’ ability to use recycled materials, while also improving toughness and tear resistance. Our products can be used to make full polyethylene laminated pouches that are more easily recyclable and can replace difficult-to-recycle conventional multi-layer packaging in non-food applications such as detergents and dishwasher pods, while retaining packaging performance benefits. And our performance polyethylene resins enable our customers to meet their performance needs with thinner, lighter-weight products, which require less resource.

Assessing advanced recycling technology

Plastics have value throughout their lifecycle, including at the end of their life. Both traditional and advanced recycling processes are needed to help society maximize the value captured from plastic waste, but there are some limitations with traditional recycling as currently configured.

Traditional mechanical recycling – grinding discarded plastic and melting it together with new plastic – is an efficient approach where waste is well sorted and for waste products that are made predominantly from one type of plastic. However, each time plastic is recycled via traditional processes, it loses some of its performance benefits. In addition, it is difficult to remove contaminants from traditional recycling processes, an important consideration for food and health care applications.

Advanced recycling involves breaking down plastic waste into its molecular building blocks. This approach effectively transforms plastic waste into the raw materials that are used in the process of making virgin-quality plastic and other valuable products. ExxonMobil believes advanced recycling is a necessary complement to traditional recycling for several reasons:

  • Advanced recycling enables society to capture more value from a broader range of products and provides more flexibility in sorting and separation processes.
  • There are no evident technical limitations regarding how many times a plastic product can be put through these processes.
  • Advanced recycling helps remove contaminants from used plastic.
  • Advanced recycling provides opportunities for lower overall greenhouse gas emissions over the full lifecycle of the plastic.

ExxonMobil is working on technology to help enable and accelerate large-scale advanced recycling solutions that could address certain limitations of traditional recycling and do so in an economically feasible way. Leveraging our expertise in research and development and molecule management, we are developing options for integrating advanced recycling solutions at our petrochemical facilities. We expect this will lead to more mixed and soiled plastic waste being recovered and used to make high-value raw materials safely, reliably and economically, at scale. We are doing this without diminishing our commitment to developing products that are easier to recycle via traditional recycling methods.

Supporting improvements in plastic waste recovery

As economies grow, society’s commitment to waste management systems must expand to enable the appropriate collection, sorting and processing of waste to minimize environmental impact. These infrastructure enhancements are needed for all types of municipal solid waste, not just plastic. However, increasing plastic recycling rates and converting plastic waste into a broad range of valuable products could unlock value and help offset some of the costs of improvements to waste collection and sorting infrastructure.

ExxonMobil was the first energy company to join The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing recycling in the United States. We have committed $1.5 million to this organization to help develop sustainable solutions and support activities such as curbside recycling programs. The partnership has supported more than 1,000 communities, including 50 million homes, and has diverted 233 million pounds of recyclable waste from landfills to recycling centers.

In 2019, ExxonMobil helped launch the Alliance to End Plastic Waste as a founding member. We worked with companies from multiple sectors to form the world’s most significant organization of business and non-profit partners to help address plastic waste. The membership has since grown to nearly 50 organizations that have collectively committed more than $1 billion to develop safe, scalable and economically viable solutions. The Alliance aims to accelerate additional investment by proving the effectiveness of these solutions, particularly in countries with the highest levels of plastic waste in the environment. For more information about the Alliance’s projects, please visit endplasticwaste.org.

Minimizing plastic pellet loss from our operations

In both 2018 and 2019, ExxonMobil had no reportable plastic pellet losses. Although laws and regulations related to the reporting of plastic pellet loss to the environment vary by jurisdiction, we put in place a global standard across all of our resin-handling facilities.  ExxonMobil’s objective is to have zero pellet loss to the environment. 

Pellets are typically loaded into a bag, truck or railcar via a mechanical process. Plant personnel monitor our facilities via routine daily rounds, and if a loss of containment is discovered, loose pellets are promptly recovered. Pellet recovery equipment, such as skimmers and sieves, is also in place to recover pellets captured in our water drainage systems.

ExxonMobil actively participates in industry initiatives related to pellet loss. Since 2008, we have been a member of Operation Clean Sweep® (OCS), a voluntary international industry program for plastic manufacturing facilities that encourages the use of best practices for pellet management and containment to reduce pellet loss. We have incorporated Operation Clean Sweep principles into our global Operations Integrity Management System (OIMS), which is applied at our plastics production and handling facilities around the world and requires a regular assessment of our procedures to ensure they are effective, and improvement measures are implemented if needed. We have also incorporated Operation Clean Sweep principles into our Supplier Relationship Management process to inform third-party logistics suppliers about our commitment, and we encourage participation in similar programs or activities to prevent pellet loss.

In 2019, we joined Operation Clean Sweep® (OCS) Blue, which is a voluntary extension of Operation Clean Sweep in the United States that includes enhanced commitments for the awareness, prevention, management and reporting of plastic pellet releases to help further reduce plastic pellet loss at industry facilities.

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Environmental benefits of plastics relative to alternative materials

While ExxonMobil agrees there is no place for plastic waste in the environment, the environmental benefits of plastic are clear. Calls to replace plastic packaging with alternative materials can often have unintended negative environmental impacts. For example:

  • According to a 2011 U.K. Environment Agency study, a cotton tote bag would need to be used 131 times to have a lower full lifecycle emissions impact than using a typical plastic grocery bag once.
  • A 2016 TruCost study found that substituting plastic in consumer products packaging with alternatives that perform the same function would have nearly four times the negative impact on the environment on a full lifecycle basis.
  • A 2018 study by the Denmark Ministry of Environment and Food concluded a paper bag would need to be reused 43 times to have a lower impact on ozone depletion and air and water pollution than the average plastic bag.
  • A 2018 Franklin Associates study in the United States found the manufacturing process for plastics packaging used almost 50 percent less energy and 80 percent less water compared to the manufacturing process for alternate materials.

2019 performance highlights

Alliance to End Plastic Waste founding member. ExxonMobil is a founding member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an organization committed to advancing potential scalable solutions to reduce plastic waste in the environment.

No reportable plastic pellet losses to the environment. Although laws and regulations related to the reporting of plastic pellet loss to the environment vary by jurisdiction, we put in place a global standard across all of our resin-handling facilities in 2019.