Clean Energy 101: Reducing Climate Pollution from the Plastics Industry

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Clean Energy 101: Decarbonizing plastic production and disposal is essential for a safer climate future.

Plastics are flying under the radar as a major contributor to climate change. While the negative environmental impacts of solid pollutants like ocean plastics have entered mainstream awareness, the general public and industry alike struggle to understand the outsize impact plastic has on climate. When considering the emissions related to plastic production, we must remember that this material is made from oil and gas. In fact, about 12 percent of global oil supply each year is used to create plastic — accounting for 3.4 percent of global carbon pollution.

Decarbonizing plastic production and disposal is essential for a safer climate future. Fortunately, there are options currently available to manage plastics’ climate risks.

How Did We Get Here?

Plastics are made from carbon-based polymers. The plastics we think of today are derived from fossil fuels, but the first plastic was made from natural polymer cellulose in 1862. Demand for materials with properties not found in nature grew and in 1907 the first fossil-fuel based plastic, “Bakelite,” was invented. After Bakelite, the discovery of fossil-based plastics exploded. Polystyrene, polyester, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polyethylene were all commercially produced before 1940. Cheap to produce and versatile, plastic demand skyrocketed. As plastics became the dominant material used for packaging and many everyday items, petrochemical production growth accelerated in parallel.

Currently, petrochemical plants produce over 350 million tons/year of plastics globally. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for over half of total global primary production. Europe and the United States each make up 15 percent, while the Middle East’s share stands at 12 percent.

Plastic production plants differ in their level of vertical integration. Typically, sites are either fully integrated, co-located and operated with an oil refinery, or standalone. Even if plastic production plants are not operated jointly with a refinery, they are heavily concentrated in industrial regions with existing petrochemical infrastructure, such as the US Gulf Coast. Fence-line communities living near these facilities are predominantly marginalized and of low-income status.

The Good News: We Can Manage Plastics’ Climate Risk

The first step to reducing emissions is understanding where they are coming from within a supply chain. Plainly stated, you can’t mitigate what you can’t measure or account for. The plastics supply chain is incredibly complex covering a wide array of products and involving many producers across multiple sectors. Accurate emissions data is critical to understanding and reducing the carbon footprint of this industry.

Source data: COMET Making Plastics Emissions Transparent

Directly measured emissions data from producers provides the most accurate picture; however, innovative modeling techniques provide valuable insights into opaque segments of the plastics supply chain. For example, plastic’s life-cycle emissions begin with sourcing upstream feedstocks. RMI’s OCI+ modeling tool illustrates the vast differences in emissions intensity for various sources of crude oil and natural gas. A key factor affecting petrochemicals life-cycle emissions is the methane intensity of feedstocks, especially in the production segment. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with global warming potential over 80 times greater than CO2 over a 20-year period.

Increased renewable energy supply for petrochemical operations is another way to decarbonize the sector. In the long term, petrochemical producers like Dow, Shell, BASF, SABIC, and Linde are researching the implementation of innovative heat electrification technology such as electric crackers. The plastic supply chain is highly electrified downstream of petrochemical plants and can gain large short-term emissions benefits by maximizing renewable electricity use.

While these strategies can help decarbonize the industry, plastic producers cannot quantify and communicate the impact of incorporating these strategies in production processes without robust accounting. Harmonized greenhouse gas accounting guidance enables producers to demonstrate verified emissions reductions and market these benefits to customers. Currently, the plastics accounting landscape does not include a full supply chain guidance. RMI’s Horizon Zero team is working with stakeholders across the value chain to develop robust product-level carbon accounting guidance for plastics.

The Long Game: Reducing Plastics’ Climate Impact Goes Beyond the Production Process

Plastic emissions do not stop after consumer use. Plastic end-of-life emissions could account for an additional 16 million metric tons of CO2e emissions per year depending on the waste disposal method. About 40 percent of all plastic waste is currently disposed of in landfills — engineered facilities that receive and bury mixed waste that decomposes over time. Well-engineered landfills have low carbon emissions, but poorly maintained landfills raise concerns over land use and leaching of hazardous waste and pollution. Incineration is the next most common disposal method, combusting approximately 25 percent of plastic waste. Incineration requires less land than landfilling and reduces the risks of local water and soil pollution but produces the highest carbon emissions.

A smaller portion of plastic waste, 16 percent, is mechanically recycled. Traditional mechanical recycling involves collection, sorting, washing, and pelletizing waste for reuse. Mechanical recycling has low carbon emissions and reduces pollution, but rates suffer from insufficient infrastructure, strict and often confusing collection rules, and overall insufficient economic incentives. The unfortunate reality is that more plastic waste is unmanaged than recycled. Yet this presents an opportunity to institute best practices for waste collection and disposal from the outset.

Increasing the circularity of plastics has been the goal of many environmental groups for years. Circularity refers to the content of post-consumer recycled plastic in a finished product. An ideal circular plastics economy requires no virgin plastic production from oil. Instead, all new plastics come from recycled existing material. Several companies have set ambitious circularity targets for their products. To meet these circularity targets, firms depend on the supply of high-quality mechanically recycled resins, which are insufficient to meet demand. Innovative new advanced recycling approaches offer a potential path to meet these targets but are not a full substitute for mechanical recycling. These technologies vary by the methods employed and emissions impacts. Determining the best path forward for plastics should include reducing life-cycle emissions along with plastic waste to create a better climate future.

Where Do We Go from Here?

RMI believes that focusing on carbon accounting will provide a holistic view of the climate impact of different plastics production processes to make the best changes for a sustainable future. We will be working over the coming months to further understand and determine strategies to reduce plastics’ climate risks. To that end, we will be publishing further insights and key learnings. Please contact Meghan Peltier (mpeltier@rmi.org) for more detailed strategies and stay tuned for evolving insights.

By Meghan Peltier, Joseph Fallurin, Shannon Hughes © 2023 Rocky Mountain Institute. Published with permission. Originally posted on RMI.

Featured photo by Antoine GIRET on Unsplash

Related Story: The Hidden Costs Of A Plastic Planet


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Since 1982, RMI (previously Rocky Mountain Institute) has advanced market-based solutions that transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure future. An independent, nonprofit think-and-do tank, RMI engages with businesses, communities and institutions to accelerate and scale replicable solutions that drive the cost-effective shift from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. Please visit http://www.rmi.org for more information.

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