Plastics play an essential role in modern society, but also lead to significant impacts on the environment and climate. Reducing such impacts while retaining the usefulness of plastics requires a shift towards a more circular and sustainable plastics system. This report tells the story of plastics, and their effect on the environment and climate, and looks at their place in a European circular economy.
Plastics comprise a range of materials, each with its own unique characteristics, properties and applications — 99% of plastics are made from carbon from fossil fuels (CIEL, 2019).
The consumption and production of plastics have grown exponentially since the 1950s, with the resulting products (including packaging, kitchenware, electronics, textiles, car
components and furniture) constituting an important part of everyday life. Plastics are light, cheap, durable and can be made in an infinite number of variations, and the plastics industry contributes to growth and job creation.
Plastic packaging is the largest sector of the plastics industry, representing almost 40% of total plastic consumption. Among other things, plastics provide new transport solutions for the logistics sector, and they are important for improving hygiene in healthcare (e.g. in virus protection) and for reducing food waste by keeping food fresh for longer. Plastics are also used in cars and aeroplanes, reducing weight and improving fuel efficiency, in synthetic fibres in clothing and other textiles, and in furniture and kitchenware.
In recent years, plastic has been subject to increased focus and attention from an environmental perspective. Being lightweight and durable are two key strengths of plastic, but this also means that plastic spreads easily and can persist in the environment for many years. Plastic waste can now be found in our parks, on our beaches, at the bottom of the oceans and seas, on top of mountains and even inside our bodies. The leakage of plastics into the environment poses a significant problem for current and future generations, and there are significant gaps in our knowledge about the kind of effects that this exposure can have.
The potential magnitude of impacts on the environment and human health varies a lot depending on the type of plastics and the chemical additives they contain. The negative effects of plastics go beyond littering and leakage: 7 % of crude oil output is used to make plastics, a proportion set to grow rapidly as consumption of plastics is expected to double in the coming 20 years (EC, 2020).
The energy and fossil feedstock used to produce and transport plastics and manage plastic waste creates a large and growing carbon footprint.