Global plastic consumption can be halved by 2050, according to new research

The world’s reliance on plastics is hampering global efforts to confront the climate crisis as almost all plastics are made from fossil fuels, which contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. On current trends, emissions from plastics are due to increase threefold by 2050, dashing any hopes of achieving the Paris Agreement’s aims of zero emissions.

But new analysis on Phasing out Plastics from the global affairs think tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) finds that the world could halve plastics consumption by 2050, recycle 75% of the plastic that remains and increase the amount of plastic produced without fossil fuels – resulting in a drastic cut of global emissions from plastics from 1,984 Mt CO2e in 2015 to 790 Mt CO2e in 2050.

The ODI’s analysis examines the phasing out of plastics across key manufacturing sectors, highlighting opportunities for industry to spearhead efforts to 'build back greener' from COVID-19. It finds that plastic consumption could be reduced by more than 95% in the construction sector, 78% in the packaging sector, 57% in the electronics sector and 17% in the automotive sector. Currently, these industries collectively account for around 60% of total plastics consumption.

Andrew Scott, lead researcher, said:

Despite substantial attention being paid to plastic pollution and recycling, greenhouse gas emissions from the production of new plastics are set to increase dramatically.

To confront the climate crisis, we must truly recognise plastics as a climate issue and raise our ambition beyond reusing and recycling to significantly phasing out plastics all together.

Our research shows that this is technically possible – but it will require public and political will, as well as leadership from industry.

Securing these large-scale wins will require large-scale changes from industry and consumers - from driving reductions in consumption to reducing the use of oil and gas to produce new plastics.

Government intervention would be needed to achieve this transition, with the research suggesting that widespread regulation would be needed. Alongside this, changes in government and business practices would be required. 

Improved product designs and changes to consumption patterns could reduce the quantity of materials used, extend the lifetimes of products and enhance their reuse; while other materials could be substituted for plastics (such as metal, wood, natural fibres and ceramics), with recycled plastics used elsewhere. 

Andrew Scott added:

There’s a lot of talk about kickstarting the global reset from COVID-19 with a stronger, greener recovery. We can start by phasing out plastics.

Given their devastating impact on our planet, it can be hard to comprehend that plastics only entered the mainstream in the second half of the 20th century.

With concerted action from business, government and consumers, we could make the first half of the 21st century the time to phase them out.