Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics


Over the past four decades, global plastics production has quadrupled1. If this trend were to continue, the GHG emissions from plastics would reach 15% of the global carbon budget by 20502. Strategies to mitigate the life-cycle GHG emissions of plastics, however, have not been evaluated on a global scale. Here, we compile a dataset covering ten conventional and five bio-based plastics and their life-cycle GHG emissions under various mitigation strategies. Our results show that the global life-cycle GHG emissions of conventional plastics were 1.7 Gt of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) in 2015, which would grow to 6.5 GtCO2e by 2050 under the current trajectory. However, aggressive application of renewable energy, recycling and demand-management strategies, in concert, has the potential to keep 2050 emissions comparable to 2015 levels. In addition, replacing fossil fuel feedstock with biomass can further reduce emissions and achieve an absolute reduction from the current level. Our study demonstrates the need for integrating energy, materials, recycling and demand-management strategies to curb growing life-cycle GHG emissions from plastics.

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Fig. 1: Global life-cycle GHG emissions of conventional plastics in 2015 by life-cycle stage and plastic type.
Fig. 2: Global life-cycle GHG emissions of plastics under scenarios of different feedstock sources, energy mixes, EoL management strategies and growth in plastics demand for 2015–2050.
Fig. 3: GHG-emissions breakdown by life-cycle stage of plastics derived from different feedstock types under two energy-mix scenarios in 2050.

Data availability

The authors declare that the main data supporting the findings of this study are available within the Letter and Supplementary Information. Additional data are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Change history

  • 10 May 2019

    In the version of this Letter originally published, in Fig. 1 the label ‘PPA 159 Mt’ should have been ‘PP&A 159 Mt’. This has now been amended.


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We acknowledge the financial support of the US Environmental Protection Agency's Science to Achieve Results Program under Grant No. 83557907. We also acknowledge UCSB Mellichamp Sustainability Fellowship and the Technology Management Program Young Innovator Scholarship for financial aid. We thank Y. Qin, E. Wall and Y. Ren (at University of California Santa Barbara) for their helpful comments.

Author information

J.Z. performed the research and analysed the data. S.S. conceived the idea and designed the study. Both authors wrote the manuscript.

Correspondence to Sangwon Suh.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Journal peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Hans Josef Endres, Ola Eriksson and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Zheng, J., Suh, S. Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 374–378 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0459-z

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