In view of the rising plastics consumption and production trends, a systematic and integrated perspective on plastics and its carbon cycle is important in order to find a way to make plastics compatible with a low-carbon economy - and to reinforce the understanding of the links between the circularity of plastics and climate change.

The ETC/WMGE report ‘Greenhouse gas emissions and natural capital implications of plastics (including biobased plastics)’ provides an analysis of the impacts of all steps in the EU plastics value chain, including feedstock production, refining, cracking, compounding, manufacturing, waste management, excluding the use phase. The report focuses on both direct and indirect impacts of the European plastic system, including impacts outside Europe but related to plastics consumption in the EU. Further, it offers insights to inform future discussions on the potential and limitations of circular plastics (including biobased plastics) and the corresponding impacts on climate and on natural capital. 

The greenhouse gas emissions of the EU plastics value chain

The overall greenhouse gas emissions from the EU plastics value chain for 2018 were estimated at 208 Mt CO2-eq. The majority, 63 % of this, is related to resin production. Converting these polymers to products accounts for 22 %, and plastic waste treatment adds a further 15 %, mainly due to incineration.

Total greenhouse gas emissions from the EU plastics value chain in 2018 | source: ETC/WMGE

How to reduce this climate impact?

The plastics value chain has significant untapped potential to reduce its CO2 emissions due to the current overall low recycling rate. The high quality recycling of plastics (both fossil- and bio-based) could be beneficial to climate impact in two ways:

  • it avoids CO2-emissions during incineration of the plastic waste
  • the outputs can replace the production of primary raw materials and therefore avoid the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions.

Switching from fossil- to bio based plastics has potential to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the plastic value chain, but also presents other challenges as sustainable land use and competition with food to protect and maintain natural capital.

The current share of bio-based polymers in total plastics production at 1 % is very small. Bio-based plastics reduce the carbon footprint of plastics by sequestering CO2 during the production of the biological raw materials for plastics. If we were to cover the entire demand for plastics in the EU by bio-based plastics, emissions are estimated at 146 Mt CO2-eq in total, which is 62 Mt or 30% less than emissions for the fossil-based value chain.

This report was created in collaboration with VTT and EEA.