Here is the full text and summary of Aarthi Ananthanarayanan’s talk titled “The Ugly Truth about Big Oil, Plastics, and our Climate” at TEDxPortland conference.
Listen to the audio version here:
This is coal. And it’s a fossil fuel. Gasoline, that’s a fossil fuel. And plastic, that’s a fossil fuel too. That’s how we have to think about plastic. Because plastic is made of oil. And of all the uses of oil, plastic is growing the fastest.
But we don’t often think about plastic as a part of the climate crisis. And the simple fact is, for the climate, for our oceans, and for our health, we have to use less gas, less oil, and less coal everywhere. And that means for energy, for cars, and for plastic too.
Because 11 million tons of plastic is going into our ocean every year. 11 million! And if we do nothing, in two decades, that’s going to triple. And we can think about that a little bit like a massive oil spill. It’s killing seabirds from the outside in and from the inside out. And just like Exxon is synonymous with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, today it’s the largest manufacturer of single-use plastic in the world.
Just to give you a sense of scale, the oil used to make those 11 million tons of plastic is about the same as 800 Exxon Valdez oil spills every year. And it’s not just the lives of seabirds that were sacrificing for that plastic. It’s a family that lives by a fracking site. It’s communities along the Gulf of Mexico, mostly black and brown communities, whose neighborhoods have turned into cancer clusters because of the plastic production facilities in their backyards.
And those plastic production facilities have now replaced coal-fired power plants as the biggest new sources of greenhouse gas pollution that’s warming our planet. And we are all going to suffer the consequences of that.
We can’t solve the climate crisis if we have to keep drilling more and more oil to make plastic. And to understand what to do about that, I think it’s useful first to talk about how this plastic crisis exploded in the first place. Because here’s the thing.
More than half the plastic ever made was made in just the last 20 years. 20 years. Why? Because just when we thought we were running out of oil, this was the early 2000s, anyone remember that? Oil companies won the lottery. They discovered fracking. And suddenly, they had more oil and more gas than they knew what to do with.
And at the same time, they were losing market for their products, right? The writing was on the wall. They were electric vehicles, renewable energy, energy efficiency. So, they began to bet heavily on a new market: plastics. And if they continue at the current pace, by 2050, we will use more oil per person to make plastic than we will to fuel our cars. That’s a crisis for the ocean. It’s a crisis for the climate. And it’s a crisis for the people who live near where it’s made or where it ends up.
But, here’s the thing. In order for the plastics industry’s bet to pan out, they need us. They need us to believe that that growth is inevitable. They’ll tell us if we want a better life, we need more plastic. They’ll tell us the problem isn’t how much we’re using, it’s how much we’re throwing away, right? They’ve been telling us since the 50s, if we just stop littering, it wouldn’t be ending up in the ocean. They’re telling us, oh, the problem isn’t the companies making the plastic, it’s the people who are using the plastic.
Because they need us to believe it’s our fault if we’re not recycling better for not cleaning up after ourselves. They need us to feel ashamed. And it’s working. Let me tell you, when people find out that I work on plastics, the first response is shame. They’ll do really strange things, right? They’ll hide away their plastic water bottle.
Sometimes, you know, they tell me they won’t let me go in the office kitchen, right? Because they’ve got plastic utensils in there. Sometimes they start confessing how much they recycle at home. But less than 10% of plastic is actually recycled. Because it’s not designed to be. And even if we recycled as much plastic as possible, we’d only solve part of the problem. Because we’d still need oil and an awful lot of energy to make it.
And we’d still be left with a lot of plastic getting dumped or burned when we’re done. If we want to solve this crisis, the most important thing we have to do is just one. We have to produce less plastics. Now, that’s a big shift.
But let me give you an example from the automotive industry that helps me wrap my head around the idea that that kind of systems change is actually possible. So, when my parents first moved here from India, they used to have this white Ford Fairmont. And my dad loved to tell us, you know, it got 16 miles to a gallon, but only if you didn’t turn the AC on. And as you can see, this was the 80s, early 80s.
For the next 20 years, car companies sold us bigger, more gas-guzzling cars. And the average fuel efficiency of the US car and truck fleet basically stayed flat for 20 years. And they said, consumers didn’t want it. It’d be too expensive, too unsafe. Electric vehicles could never work, and even if they did, we would never have the charging infrastructure.
And then, California passed a law to fight climate change and the required radically more fuel-efficient vehicles. And then we did it nationally. And our policy makers took a stand against what the auto companies said was possible or not. We stopped asking for marginally more fuel-efficient vehicles, and we started dreaming of cars on a clean electric grid that didn’t need oil. That’s systems change.
And it didn’t happen by accident. It happened because of a lot of gutsy policy and innovation and big bets, and we knew it was possible long before it actually happened. And it’s not just about replacing every car with an electric vehicle. It’s the idea that when we’re fighting for a different reality, a reality where cars don’t need oil, a whole other landscape of possibilities come into view, right? It’s about the car in your driveway that can store the power from your rooftop and keep the lights on during a storm. It’s e-bikes and scooters and cities that can help make our transit systems more effective.