Lacking flexibility

The plastics business has yet to come to terms with a backlash against its products

AS WESTERN HOLIDAYMAKERS escape their daily grind and head to the beach this summer, a concern is likely to resurface—literally, if it washes up on the pristine sand in front of them. In the past two years plastic litter in the ocean seems to have eclipsed other environmental anxieties among rich-world consumers. Harrowing images of sea life ensnared in plastic bags, as depicted in “Blue Planet II”, a popular British television series from 2017 presented by Sir David Attenborough, would be enough to make anyone choke on the plastic straw in their piña colada—if, that is, you were offered one. Politicians everywhere are responding to voters’ demands by banning straws, stirrers and other single-use plastics. The UN says that last year 127 countries had restrictions on plastic bags. Last month Panama became the first Central American country to outlaw them. Britain is considering a tax on plastic packaging made with less than 30% recycled content. In March 560 members of the European Parliament backed a law that would require 90% of plastic bottles to be recycled by 2029. Just 35 voted against.

Given the environmental footprint of substitutes like cotton bags, aluminium cans or paper boxes—which often require more energy and water to make and transport than plastic equivalents—new regulations could in fact end up doing harm to the planet. Nonetheless the plastics industry can expect ever more curbs on its products, a trend that will force businesses involved to reshape. Bottles, boxes, films and the like consume nearly half of global output of the polymers on which they rely. Many companies in the $375bn plastic-packaging value chain—which comprises producers of oil and gas (the main feedstocks), petrochemicals giants, packaging firms and consumer brands—look ill-prepared.

Companies at either end of the chain are the least vulnerable. Beverage-makers will happily switch from oil-derived plastic to recycled stuff for their bottles—or to aluminium…