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Plastic is the Climate Elephant in the Room

When it comes to plastic, the world’s attention is drawn to recycling and removal, with these issues made particularly visceral through heartbreaking images of plastic entangled in the world’s ocean ecosystems and shocking statistics about micro plastics in our bodies and our food chain. But what if the conversations around recycling and removal are distracting us from plastic’s less talked about problems; mass production, expansion of supply and its massive carbon footprint?

Plastic is a fossil fuel

Not only is over 99% of plastic made from fossil fuels, but at every stage in its lifecycle plastic emits greenhouse gasses; from the extraction of raw materials to processing and waste treatment. These emissions are so great that if plastic production were a country, it would already be the world’s fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter, beating all but China, the U.S., India and Russia.

And the growth in plastic production is only increasing. Globally, plastic pollution has doubled in the past two decades and, following current trends, is set to double again by 2040. In the U.S. alone, at least 42 new plastic production facilities have come online since 2019. That’s the equivalent of adding the emissions of another 27 large coal-fired power plants (Beyond Plastics 2021).

It seems absurd that while industries such as transportation and electricity are moving away from fossil fuels, their use in the petrochemicals industry is increasing. Petrochemicals are already the number one driver for global oil demand and are predicted to account for half of global oil consumption by 2050 (IEA 2018). The International Energy Agency, or IEA, predicts that by 2030 the industry will consume one-third of global oil demand, and by 2050, this will rise to half of global oil demand  (IEA 2018).

Growth in plastic production is no accident

As renewable energy continues to develop, and as countries tighten regulations around greenhouse gas emissions, the oil and gas industries are actively seeking to expand petrochemicals to help sustain profits (The Wall Street Journal 2019). It comes as no surprise that the world’s top petrochemical producers are familiar names, including Dow, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP,  Saudi Aramco and Sinopec.

The plastic industry is blowing its budget

Aside from all the other environmental issues associated with the abundance of plastic (the latest comprehensive study shows that for every single human on the planet, there are 21,000 pieces of plastic trash in the oceans), at current rates of production, the plastics industry will exceed its carbon budget by five times by 2050, resulting in a trajectory toward global heating of 3.5 degrees Celsius, changing the world as we know it and wreaking devastation across the planet (Zero Waste Europe 2022).

So what can we do?

According to a new report by Pacific Environment we must reduce plastic by at least 75% which can only be achieved if we commit to phasing out single-use plastic by 2040 (includes capping virgin plastic production before 2030), curbing durable plastic, eliminating incineration and greening the remaining production. But the first priority of any approach must be to reduce production.

It is critical that the plastics industry transitions to zero emissions within Paris agreement timelines and does its fair share to control emissions. Even though it seems clear that we are already headed towards breaking 1.5 degrees, to get even close we must acknowledge - in policy, law and society - that plastic is a form of fossil fuel. We must limit petrochemical expansion, end government subsidies for petrochemicals and include plastic and petrochemical emission reduction targets within global climate commitments.

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Top view bottles alcohol - Image by Freepik (ST ref: 1245)

macro shot of clear glass bottles - Photo by Pete Wright on Unsplash (ST ref: 1241)


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