Phasing Out Plastics
Plastics are hampering international action to combat the climate crisis because they are almost all made from fossil fuels and contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Contrary to the aims of the Paris Agreement, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics are due to increase threefold by 2050. Achieving net zero emissions means reducing plastics emissions to zero.
Although plastics permeate our lives and every corner of our planet, it is technically possible to largely phase them out. ODI’s analysis reveals we could halve plastic consumption in 2050 compared to business as usual, recycle 75% of the plastic that remains and increase the amount of plastic produced without fossil fuels. This would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from plastics from 1,984 Mt CO2e in 2015 to 790 Mt CO2e in 2050.
The world needs a system-wide reboot that simultaneously drives reductions in consumption while reducing the use of oil and gas to produce new plastics. Improved product design and changes to consumption patterns would reduce the quantity of materials used, extend the lifetimes of products and enhance their reuse. Meanwhile, other materials could be substituted for plastics – including metal, wood, natural fibres and ceramics – and recycled plastics used elsewhere.
These actions would boost global efforts to build a stronger, greener recovery from Covid-19 by reducing plastic consumption by more than 95% in the construction sector, 78% in the packaging sector, 57% in the electrical and electronic equipment sector and 17% in the automotive sector.
Reducing plastics’ emissions to zero and phasing out new plastics made from fossil fuels would halve plastics’ current demand for oil and gas and lower existing petrochemical production capacity.
The world needs a system-wide reboot that simultaneously drives reductions in consumption while reducing the use of oil and gas to produce new plastics.
Plastics today feature in every part of our lives and are found everywhere. The global realisation that plastics are an environmental problem has focused on plastic waste and pollution, but plastics are also problematic in terms of the global climate emergency, because almost all plastics today are made from fossil fuels. By 2050, on current trends, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from plastics will increase threefold and could account for as much as 20% of total oil consumption (World Economic Forum et al., 2016). To achieve net zero emissions globally by 2050, it is critical that the plastics sector reduce its GHG emissions to zero by that date.
Building on recent literature about plastics and climate change, this report explores the potential for extensive emission reductions in the plastics sector. Using a scenario approach, we present an assessment of the technical feasibility of phasing out the production of new fossil plastics by 2050, based on detailed analysis of the potential to transform the use of plastics in four sectors – automotive, construction, packaging and electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). The report also discusses the implications of much lower plastics consumption for the upstream oil and gas sector.
Our analysis shows that a large reduction in the use of plastics will be necessary to phase out fossil plastics and their associated GHG emissions. This is technically feasible, but achieving it will require different approaches in different sectors of the economy, as well as a large expansion of plastics recycling. In 2050, the use of oil and gas for plastics production could be 50% of what it is today and GHG emissions from plastic almost one-third today’s level with the right approach.
Six types of plastic account for three-quarters of plastics production, which totalled 407 million tonnes (Mt) in 2015 (Geyer et al., 2017). This study focuses on these six plastics, namely: polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyurethane (PUR). The largest use of plastic is for packaging, which accounted for 36% of total output in 2015. Construction is the second-largest use of plastic products (16% of total plastics output), followed by textiles (14%). The automotive sector accounted for 7% of plastics consumption in 2015, while EEE consumed 4% (Geyer et al., 2017).
There are large regional differences in the consumption of plastics. North America, Europe and East Asia together consume almost two- thirds of the world’s plastics. Globally, per capita consumption of plastics is 47 kilograms (kg) per year, but in Africa and South Asia, it is less than 10 kg per year. Plastics production is concentrated in North America, Europe and East Asia, and there is often a high degree of integration between the manufacture of plastic resins and oil and gas production.
About 54% of the plastics produced in our 2050 low-plastic-consumption scenario would be made from recycled plastic
Plastics in 2050
Our assessment compares a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario with a low-plastic-consumption scenario for 2050. The former is based on a projection of plastics consumption, met by current patterns of production, modified to reflect current trends, while the latter reflects actions that reduce the consumption of plastics and increase recycling, consistent with keeping the rise in average global temperature below 1.5°C.
The BAU scenario in this study assumes an annual growth rate for plastics production and consumption of 3%, resulting in 1,145 Mt of plastics produced in 2050. In the low-plastic- consumption scenario, plastics consumption would total 400 Mt in 2050. The largest proportional changes in consumption would be in the packaging and construction sectors (with 78% and >95% reductions, respectively).
About 54% of the plastics produced in our 2050 low-plastic-consumption scenario would be made from recycled plastic. The production of new plastics would, therefore, be about half today’s level. Plastic waste in 2050 would total 301 Mt and 75% of this would be collected for recycling (compared with 20% today).
Routes to reducing fossil plastics
To achieve the transformation implied by the low-plastic-consumption scenario, it will be necessary to reduce the consumption of plastics, change production processes and overhaul the way that plastic waste is managed and recycled.
There are two main strategies to reduce plastics consumption: ‘dematerialisation and reuse’, which reduces the consumption of goods made from plastics, and ‘substitution’, or the replacement of plastics with other materials.
The low cost of plastic materials has not incentivised the efficient use of plastics. However, product design could reduce the quantity of materials used, or extend the lifespans of products and parts (for example, with more durable plastics or products that can be disassembled), in addition to enhancing the reuse of plastic products. Products such as cars can be designed to provide tailored services rather than a range of services, increasing product utilisation and materials efficiency. Consumers can also extend the life of plastic products by reusing them for the same purpose rather than discarding them after using them once or twice.
Dematerialisation and reuse can also be achieved through changes in business models and consumer behaviour (for example, businesses providing services rather than goods and consumers reusing packaging and increasing recycling rates).
Many plastic products can be made from other materials, such as metal, wood, natural fibres and ceramics. For example, glass bottles for beverages or glass jars for other foodstuffs can be used and reused after collection and cleaning. The substitution of plastics would need to consider the environmental and economic effects of producing and using alternative materials.
The potential for dematerialisation, reuse and substitution to reduce the consumption of plastics varies from sector to sector and across plastic types. In the four sectors examined in detail for this study, consumption in the low-plastic-consumption scenario is reduced (compared with BAU) by more than 95% in the construction sector, 78% in the packaging sector, 17% in the automotive industry and 57% in the EEE sector. Figure 1 shows the overall and sectoral reductions through dematerialisation, reuse and substitution in our low-plastic- consumption scenario.
About 20% of plastic waste is recycled today (Conversio, 2019). For mechanical recycling, which is the predominant technology, plastic waste is collected, sorted and cleaned before being cut into chips and then melted. However, mechanically recycled plastics may retain impurities, limiting the scope for recycled plastic to replace new plastic (IEA, 2018). Chemical recycling transforms plastic waste back into monomers, which are then polymerised to produce plastic resin, but the technology is still being developed.
In our low-plastic-consumption scenario, recycling provides 54% of plastics output in 2050 (Figure 1). This does not do away with the need for other forms of plastic waste management, nor the need for some new plastic to meet the projected level of plastics consumption in 2050.
About 200 Mt of new plastics would be produced in 2050 under the low-plastic- consumption scenario, roughly half the quantity produced today. The raw material for new plastics could be fossil fuel (oil and gas), biomass or synthetic feedstock. Plastics made from biomass feedstock tend to emit fewer GHGs during resin production than fossil plastics. However, plastics made from biomass feedstock currently account for less than 1% of all plastics production and their potential to replace fossil plastics would depend on greatly expanding production capacity and reducing the cost per tonne, which was double the cost of fossil plastics in 2015 (ETC, 2019). Synthetic feedstock, which is produced by combining hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2), is technologically possible, but currently far from being commercially feasible (ETC, 2019).
Climate impacts of phasing out fossil plastics
Our 2050 low-plastic-consumption scenario would reduce GHG emissions from plastics, both relative to BAU and in absolute terms compared with current levels. Emission reductions would be achieved through lower consumption of oil and gas for feedstock, changes in the production process and an overhaul of plastic waste management.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Under the BAU scenario, GHG emissions from plastics production and use would grow more than threefold, to about 6 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) by 2050. In our low-plastic-consumption scenario, there would be an absolute reduction in GHG emissions from plastics, as shown in Figure 2, from an estimated 2,149 Mt CO2e in 2015 to 790 Mt CO2e in 2050 (without taking into account any indirect changes in emissions associated with substitution).
Compared with the BAU scenario, dematerialisation and reuse would reduce consumption by 2,166 Mt CO2e, accounting for 41% of the total reduction. Substitution would cut consumption by another 1,778 Mt CO2e (34% of the total reduction) and the decarbonisation of energy would trim it by 1,003 Mt CO2e (19% of the total). The higher rate of recycling in our low-plastic-consumption scenario would reduce emissions further, by 308 Mt CO2e, thus making a relatively small contribution to total emissions cuts (6% of the total) compared with other actions.
Plastics production currently accounts for about 9% of global oil consumption and 3% of natural gas. By one estimate, plastics could account for 20% of global oil consumption in 2050 (World Economic Forum et al., 2016). However, our low- plastic-consumption scenario would put demand for plastic feedstocks in 2050 at about half the level it is for oil and gas for plastics today.
Our low-plastic-consumption scenario, therefore, implies a reduction in the required capacity of petrochemical plants by 2050. Although the total capacity of petrochemical facilities globally is expanding in anticipation of growth in plastics consumption, our scenario suggests only half of current capacity could be needed in 2050. The expectation that plastics production will provide an expanding market for oil and gas, stimulated in part by low gas prices, would thus be confounded by a pathway towards low plastic consumption consistent with limiting global heating to 1.5°C.
Management of plastic waste
The quantity of plastic waste generated in our 2050 low-plastic-consumption scenario would be about the same as that generated in 2015, but with one key difference: a significantly higher level of recycling – 75% waste collected for recycling in 2050 compared with about 20% in 2018. The 25% of plastic waste not collected for recycling in 2050 would be either incinerated or sent to landfill. The scenario thus implies a fourfold increase in global capacity for collecting, sorting, cleaning and recycling plastic waste, presenting a potential opportunity for businesses.
Change will be necessary in almost every market sector to achieve a reduction in GHG emissions from plastics consistent with a 1.5°C global heating goal.
Under our BAU scenario, current consumption trends could triple emissions from plastics by 2050 and prevent us from achieving the goal of keeping global heating below 1.5°C. However, the low-plastic-consumption scenario at the heart of this study assumes action can be taken to substantially reduce the consumption of plastics, through measures to reduce the overall quantity of materials consumed and to substitute other materials for plastics.
It would be technically feasible to achieve a level of plastics consumption in 2050 that is 65% lower than the BAU projection. The total quantity of plastics consumed globally in 2050 could be about the same level as it is today, despite increases in population and prosperity. The quantity of virgin (new) plastics produced could be about half today’s level, with recycled plastic accounting for half of all plastics produced. Combined with shifts to renewable electricity and enhanced recycling, this could reduce emissions from plastics to about 0.8 Gt CO2e in 2050 – an absolute reduction from current levels.
Reduced consumption of plastics could be achieved through changes in product design (incorporating principles of sustainability and circular economy into the design process), business models and consumer behaviour (including increased reuse of products). It would require changes in government regulation, price incentives and social attitudes to help reduce the consumption of plastic products.
Plastic recycling would need to be scaled up and transformed to achieve the rate of recycling that is technically feasible in 2050. A high rate of recycling may also call for more integration of the businesses of waste management and recycling with those of monomer and polymer manufacture. However, by 2050, enhanced recycling could provide about half of the material needed to produce plastic resins. This would roughly halve the amount of oil and gas used to make plastics from today’s level.
Change will be necessary in almost every market sector to achieve a reduction in GHG emissions from plastics consistent with a 1.5°C global heating goal. Policies to transform the plastics sector will need a system-wide perspective to simultaneously drive reductions in plastics consumption and in the use of oil and gas to produce virgin fossil plastics.