How is plastic made? Climate change is a key ingredient

Plastic and planet-warming fuels (such as coal, oil and fracked gas) are intrinsically linked. It’s all to do with how plastic is made.
  Published:  28 Jan 2019    |      3 minute read

It might come as a surprise, but plastic is a big problem for the environment even before it pollutes our rivers and oceans. Plastic is a major contributor to climate change.

That's because chemicals derived from fossil fuel production are used to make almost all plastics - more than 99% of them.

So the more plastic we make, the more of these petrochemicals we need. And the more petrochemicals we need, the higher the demand for gas, oil and even coal. The same fuels driving dangerous climate change.

Fracking fuelling the plastics boom

The expansion of oil and gas production has slashed the cost of petrochemicals – making new plastics cheaper to produce.

Fracking is one of the main culprits. Fracked gas from the United States is driving huge investment in plastic production worldwide, including new plastics factories in Europe.

If fracking were to take off in a big way in England some of this gas could well end up as plastics feedstock too. 

Plastic production is already responsible for 5% of greenhouse gas emissions – gases that are warming the planet and causing more extreme weather.

These gases are released during oil and gas drilling, and as a result of energy consumption in the plastics processing industry. Burning plastics in incinerators also releases greenhouse gases.

Learn more about plastics and climate in our short video.


Methane from plastics

Around 40% of the plastic created is disposable packaging – and too much of this ends up in the oceans. The worst offender is the plastic most commonly produced – polyethylene. You'll know it better as the cheap plastic in things like bottles, 6-pack rings, and fruit and vegetable bags.

As if the impact on marine life wasn't enough, scientists have now discovered that plastics degrading in our oceans are releasing methane – a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The amount of methane being released in this way currently is believed to be small compared to other sources of methane. But it's a worrying discovery given predicted increases in plastic production over coming decades – see below.

The world has recently woken up to the problem of plastic pollution. Many people are demanding action to stem the tide of plastic spilling into our oceans and choking our wildlife. We've seen outrage over plastic-wrapped coconuts and thousands of people getting behind campaigns like our own to phase out non-essentials such as plastic drinks stirrers and single-use packaging. 

But the link between plastics and climate change may be news to a lot of people.

More plastic waste is on the way

We've already mentioned that the more plastic we make, the more oil and gas we use.

Oil and gas companies know this too. In fact, it’s a big part of their business model. That’s why fossil fuel producers have been investing heavily in plastics – and they’re looking to increase plastics production by 40%.

All that plastic will need more petrochemicals. Which means more oil and gas. 

In the years ahead, the planet-warming gases from plastics production are set to grow by almost 300%. Unabated, plastic will soon be a bigger contributor to climate change than aviation and shipping put together.

This is bad news for the climate – as well as whales, turtles and seabirds that ingest and get entangled in plastic.

Petrochemicals... will have a greater influence on the future of oil than cars, trucks and aviation. 

Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA)

Beating climate change means less plastic

In the past decade humans have produced more disposable plastic than in the entire 20th century.

If the gas and oil giants have their way, we'll be creating even more plastic pollution using more petrochemicals – massively increasing plastic's contribution to climate change.

We could prevent this double whammy of waste and emissions by phasing out non-essential plastics from our lives. 

Of course, plastic will continue to play a vital role in areas like medicine. And it's fair to say that some plastics may have helped reduce climate-changing emissions through their use in wind turbines, food storage and making lighter, more-fuel-efficient vehicles. These plastics are more difficult to replace.

But we can phase out the throwaway stuff. And we must – for the sake of the environment and the climate.