Global plastic consumption can be halved by 2050 to spearhead the green recovery - new ODI report

21 September 2020

As New York Climate Week gets underway, new research from ODI highlights that key industries can phase out plastics to drastically lower emissions and confront the climate crisis.

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 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.

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.

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.

The reports outline the system-wide solutions that will be needed to realise these changes, with calls for:

  • Governments to introduce regulations to rapidly phase out single-use plastics, incentivise the use of alternative materials (for example, through carbon taxes) and invest in recycling capacity;
  • Businesses to adopt principles of sustainability and circular economy in product design;
  • Consumers to reuse and recycle plastics, but to also be aware of the climate effects of the plastics that they use.

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.”

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For further information or to interview the researchers please contact Charlotte Howes at ODI on +44 7808 791 265 or at [email protected].

Notes to Editors

About the report

Phasing out Plastics was researched by Andrew Scott, Sam Pickard, Samuel Sharp and Renilde Becqué on behalf of ODI, with support from ClimateWorks Foundation and the 11th Hour Project.

Phasing out Plastics is complemented and informed by four sector reports:

About the research

Phasing out Plastics takes a bottom-up approach to assessing the use of plastics in these four sectors, which collectively account for around 60% of total plastics consumption.

Phasing out Plastics considers the upstream and downstream aspects of the plastic value chain in aggregate across sectors and discusses opportunities to reduce the environmental impacts of plastics consumption through changes in the production, recycling and disposal of plastics. The technical sector reports focus on minimising the demand for plastic materials, as reductions in aggregate demand facilitate easier management of the associated upstream and end-of-life processes.

The purpose of this research is to illustrate the technical and political feasibility of phasing out or substantially reducing the production and consumption of virgin (new) plastics made from fossil fuels in 2050. The aim is to demonstrate the impact this would have on climate change by assessing the effect a phase-out (or scaling back) of plastics production would have on GHG emissions.

The research set out to answer three questions.

  • What are the technical opportunities to phase out (or reduce) plastics production and consumption in the short, medium and long term?
  • What are the emission-reduction effects of phasing out plastics production and use?
  • What are the high-level political-economy considerations for phasing out plastics production and use?

The overall approach was to compare two alternative scenarios for 2050, one based on a BAU projection of plastics consumption and the other based on assumptions about technically feasible reductions in plastics consumption. Analysis focused on the six main types of plastic (PE, PP, PS, PVC, PET and PUR), which accounted for about 80% of total plastics production in 2015.

Highlights from the sector reports

  • We could reduce the use of plastics in the construction industry by a whopping 95%. For almost all major uses of plastic in the industry, there are non-plastic alternatives available today.
  • Despite global focus on plastic packaging, only 26% of plastic waste is recycled. With global action (including to deter single-use plastic), we could cut plastic consumption by 78% in the packaging sector.
  • Key actors in the electronics industry are already building a sustainability agenda and the number of rental and service business models is growing. This underscores real potential to reduce plastics consumption in the electronics industry by 57%.
  • Replacing plastics in automotive industry could add to fuel consumption so we must reduce vehicle use – for example, through ride-sharing, car-sharing and improved public transport - to cut plastic consumption by 17%.

About ODI

ODI is Europe’s largest think tank specialising in sustainable development and global affairs. We harness the power of evidence and ideas through research and partnership to confront challenges, develop solutions and create change.