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Home » The Ugly Truth about Big Oil, Plastics, and our Climate: Aarthi Ananthanarayanan (Transcript)

The Ugly Truth about Big Oil, Plastics, and our Climate: Aarthi Ananthanarayanan (Transcript)

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.

It’s about learning to actually recycle those batteries so we aren’t stuck in the same cycle of mining. Systems change. That’s what we have to create for plastic, but we have to start by dreaming of a system with radically less plastic. And we need policy to make it more than just a PR campaign, more than that plastics-free lifestyle you can have if you can afford to shop at Whole Foods, right?

That means policy that reduces the overproduction of plastics from the start, especially that plastic that’s only used once, has harmful chemicals, and always ends up on our beaches. We need policy that makes companies pay for the pollution they’re making from where it’s made to where it ends up. And we have to stop giving tax breaks to oil companies that are just pumping out cheap plastics.

We can’t give them tax breaks because we need that money to fund innovation, innovation that’s going to help us accelerate this transition, right? It’s a big job, but I’m hopeful, and I’ll tell you why.

Over 120 countries from India, Canada, Chile, Rwanda, have all banned from single-use plastics. California just passed a sweeping plastic spill. They just tried to do something similar here in Oregon. That plastic spill reduces single-use plastics, and Ocean Conservancy estimates that over 10 years, it’s about the same as taking 25 million cars off the road. That’s huge.

In Europe, the plastics policy is making McDonald’s test reusable dishes in their restaurants in France and Germany. And we just started negotiating a global treaty to end plastic pollution.

And on the climate side, I’ll tell you, I feel hopeful for maybe the first time in my career, because the US just passed a sweeping package of climate incentives, $350 billion to get us up off oil, gas, and coal. But there’s a catch. That historic legislation didn’t include plastics, because we don’t see plastic as a climate problem. And we can’t get to that clean energy future unless we stop drilling oil to make plastic.

If we want a future where big oil doesn’t turn into big plastic, we have to make and use less. And in the US, that would be a pretty big change from the system that’s been put upon us, right? We produce three to five times as much waste as the average person in Japan or India or Egypt.

But I also take that as an example that there’s so much stuff that’s already working, stuff that we can build on, right? As I mentioned, I am a child of immigrants, and one of the great things about that is that you have all these lived experiences of how people do do things differently. You see how culture kind of adapts to what’s available in a place.

And something that I always touch back to is my grandfather’s 80th birthday in Kerala at my uncle’s house. And I remember how surprised I was as this kid who had grown up in the States to see that a house full of 30 people used maybe two or three handfuls of waste at every meal.

Can you imagine? We ate on banana leaves with our hands, and we drank out of metal cups. We had boiled water, so we didn’t have bottles. And we drank soda out of refillable glass bottles. And I don’t say this because I think we need to rewind the clock. I say it because that wasn’t 50 years ago. That was the year 2000, and more than half the plastic ever made was made since then.

Remember that, because we can still and pretty much guarantee that the plastics industry is going to tell us we can’t change the way we’ve always lived. They’re going to tell us systems change is impossible because consumers won’t accept it. They’re going to tell us focus on the waste and forget where it came from, because they need us to forget that we can choose a different future than the one they’re selling.

So here’s my challenge for us. We have to listen for those lies and remember where they came from. They’re a desperate attempt of an oil and gas industry in decline. Our challenge isn’t the absence of solutions. It’s an absence of imagination on how to make money on the proven tools we already have to reduce plastics.

Imagine if we actually designed plastics to be recycled with far fewer chemical additives. Couldn’t that supercharge our recycling systems? What if we used this move for online shopping to actually get rid of all that flashy packaging, because it’s just getting thrown away, right? And while we’re at it, let’s design those products to last two or three times as long.

How about if we designed reuse and refill systems, but at the scale of a whole city, not just one store or one brand, right? Couldn’t that make them affordable and more effective? And what if we stopped being ashamed and trusted our ability to adapt and change and demanded real choices from companies and policy makers?

I know that sounds big, but renewable energy sounded too big once. Electric cars sounded too big once. We can do big things, because we don’t have to be trapped in this world where drilling oil for plastic is a given.

Climate action can’t end at cars and power plants, because just like this coal is a fossil fuel, and gasoline is a fossil fuel, plastic is a fossil fuel, too.

Want a summary of this eye-opening talk? Here it is.


In her compelling TEDx talk titled “The Ugly Truth about Big Oil, Plastics, and our Climate,” Aarthi Ananthanarayanan delves into the often-overlooked connection between plastic production, the fossil fuel industry, and their collective impact on our environment and climate. Here is a concise summary of the key points from her talk:

1. Plastic is a Fossil Fuel: Aarthi starts by emphasizing that plastic, though rarely perceived this way, is essentially a fossil fuel product. Gasoline, coal, and plastic are all derived from fossil fuels.

2. Plastic’s Role in the Climate Crisis: Plastic is a significant contributor to the climate crisis, yet it is frequently disregarded in discussions about environmental issues. Aarthi highlights the urgency of reducing our consumption of oil, gas, and coal, not just for energy and transportation but also for plastic production.

3. Alarming Plastic Pollution: A staggering 11 million tons of plastic find their way into our oceans each year, posing a grave threat to marine life. Without intervention, this figure is projected to triple in two decades.

4. Exxon’s Role: A shocking revelation is that Exxon, renowned for the Exxon Valdez oil spill, is currently the largest manufacturer of single-use plastic globally.

5. The Oil Industry’s Shift to Plastic: As the oil industry discovered fracking and found itself with an abundance of oil and gas, it sought new markets to maintain profits. Plastic became a lucrative option, leading to an unprecedented surge in plastic production.

6. Environmental and Health Consequences: Beyond climate impacts, plastic production facilities have now replaced coal-fired power plants as one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas pollution. Communities living near these facilities, often marginalized communities of color, experience severe health problems, including cancer clusters.

7. Reducing Plastic Production: Aarthi underscores that the most crucial step in addressing the plastic crisis is to produce less plastic. This necessitates a fundamental shift in our perspective and practices.

8. Emulating the Automotive Industry Shift: Drawing parallels with the transformation of the automotive industry toward electric vehicles, Aarthi emphasizes that it took bold policies, innovation, and a change in mindset to drive that transition.

9. Policy Reforms: Effective policies are imperative to curb plastic production, hold companies accountable for their pollution, and cease providing tax incentives to oil companies.

10. Global Initiatives: Across the world, countries have taken action by banning single-use plastics, while global efforts are underway to negotiate a treaty to combat plastic pollution.

11. Linking Plastic and Climate Action: The talk underscores that plastic production cannot be separated from broader climate action; reducing plastic production is pivotal for a sustainable, clean energy future.

12. Imagining a Plastic-Reduced Future: Aarthi challenges her audience to envision a world where plastics are designed for recycling, packaging is minimized, and products are built to endure. She advocates for trusting our capacity to adapt and change.

In conclusion, Aarthi Ananthanarayanan’s TEDx talk shines a spotlight on the urgent need to address the plastic crisis and its intricate ties to climate change. Her message resonates with the importance of reevaluating our plastic consumption, implementing systemic changes, and advocating for impactful policies to pave the way for a sustainable future.

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