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Plastics and the Energy Crisis

The energy crisis has caused bills to rise globally and has forced many into poverty. The issue was worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, as many countries imposed sanctions and had to reduce their reliance on Russian fossil fuels. A new report from Break Free From Plastic and the CIEL (Center for International Environmental Law) presents the link between the energy crisis and plastic production in the EU. ‘Winter is Coming: Plastic Has to Go’ studies how much Russian oil and gas goes into making plastic and suggests how cutting plastic production could provide a way out of the energy crisis.

According to the report, imports from Russia accounted for 38% of gas and 22% of oil and petroleum products supplied to the EU in 2020. Of these Russian imports, around 40% of gas and 8% of oil then went into plastic production. Industrial plastic production uses more energy than any other industry, yet it is still being overlooked in the context of the energy crisis. Although the EU implemented what seem like positive changes with the Plastics Strategy in 2018 and the Single Use Plastic (SUP) Directive in 2019, neither addresses the root of the problem, which is production, most importantly of packaging.

Plastic packaging accounts for 40.5% of all energy used in industrial plastic

production. This makes it far more energy-intensive than any other industrial plastic product, such as plastics made for building and construction, automotives and electronics. If there was a reduction in the amount of plastic packaging being made, this could reduce the impact of the energy crisis as the need for fossil fuels would decrease. In addition, this would have a positive impact on the climate crisis and the problem of plastic pollution.

‘Winter is coming…’ emphasises that to improve these issues, larger goals need to be set, and the loss of Russian fuel supplies should be seen as an opportunity to make vital improvements. In order to reduce production of plastic packaging and secure energy security for the EU, Break Free From Plastic and the CIEL suggest several policies:

  • Rather than sourcing fossil fuels from elsewhere to combat the energy crisis, the focus should be on lowering fossil fuel consumption altogether, starting by ending unnecessary plastic packaging production. This would mean placing further bans on single-use plastics (in addition to those in the SUP directive) like plastic sachets and overpackaged items, for example wrapping on fruit and vegetables.

  • More ambitious targets should be set around reuse of plastics and reusable packaging systems must be readily available to everyone. Importantly, reduction of fossil fuel consumption should not negatively impact low-income households, and financial incentives should be put into action, such as deposit return schemes and reverse logistics (returning packaging to the manufacturer in order to be properly reused or recycled).

  • The EU should set a cap on plastic production and gradually phase down plastic production. In addition, virgin plastic (i.e., new plastic that has not yet been recycled) use should be reduced by 40% by 2030 and construction of fossil fuel infrastructure should be stopped, including facilities which produce virgin plastic.

  • The ultimate aim should be for a future without fossil fuels.

These policies should be applied most urgently to countries that consume the most fossil fuels and produce the most plastic. If all this can be achieved, the EU’s energy security would increase, and energy prices would stop escalating.

Click here to read the full report.


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Images: Unsplash


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