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Plastic futures and their CO2 emissions

Abstract

Plastics show the strongest production growth of all bulk materials and are already responsible for 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions1,2. If no new policies are implemented, we project a doubling of global plastic demand by 2050 and more than a tripling by 2100, with an almost equivalent increase in CO2 emissions. Here we analyse three alternative CO2 emission-mitigation pathways for the global plastics sector until 2100, covering the entire life cycle from production to waste management. Our results show that, through bio-based carbon sequestration in plastic products, a combination of biomass use and landfilling can achieve negative emissions in the long term; however, this involves continued reliance on primary feedstock. A circular economy approach without an additional bioeconomy push reduces resource consumption by 30% and achieves 10% greater emission reductions before 2050 while reducing the potential of negative emissions in the long term. A circular bioeconomy approach combining recycling with higher biomass use could ultimately turn the sector into a net carbon sink, while at the same time phasing out landfilling and reducing resource consumption. Our work improves the representation of material flows and the circular economy in global energy and emission models, and provides insight into long-term dynamics in the plastics sector.

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Fig. 1: Projections of global plastic production, waste generation and plastic stocks in use, by sector.
Fig. 2: Global plastic flows and stocks for the SSP2 baseline scenario in the year 2050.
Fig. 3: Global carbon balance of the plastics sector over the entire life cycle.
Fig. 4: Global final energy use in the plastics sector over the entire life cycle.

Data availability

Model documentation and data of the IMAGE model can be found online33. A detailed description of the PLAIA model and its data sources is published13.

Code availability

The code of the PLAIA model is published31.

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Acknowledgements

The funding of this research is supported by the Topconsortia voor Kennis en Innovatie programme BioBased Economy and awarded by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs (Project TKI-BBE-1601 Impact assessment BBE economy). The project partners include Utrecht University, Netherlands Organization for applied scientific research (ECN division), Nouryon, Avantium, RWE and Staatsbosbeheer. The contributions of D.P.v.V. and V.D. have been partially funded through the project SHAPE, funded through AXIS/JPI Climate and by FORMAS (SE), FFG/BMWFW (AT), DLR/BMBF and NWO (NL) and with co-funding by the European Union (grant no. 776608). The contribution of D.P.v.V. also benefited from funding from the European Research Council under grant no. ERC-CG 819566 (PICASSO). We thank F. Teunissen for improving the quality of English language and T. Markus for supporting completion of the figures.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

M.J. and M.L. developed the idea. P.S. and V.D. developed the method. P.S. calculated and compiled the results and wrote the article, with inputs from M.J., M.L., V.D. and D.P.v.V. P.S., M.L., M.J., V.D. and D.P.v.V. discussed the results and contributed to the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Paul Stegmann or Vassilis Daioglou.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature thanks Stephan Pfister and Sangwon Suh for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 The global shares of waste treatment technologies.

These graphs represent the fate of collected plastic waste; sorting and recycling losses of mechanical recycling were allocated to the remaining waste treatment options; the chemical recycling share represents the plastic waste sent to pyrolysis.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Resource shares in annual global plastic production.

This figure shows the final shares of resources in the annually produced plastic products (not the primary resource use for plastics).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Comparing the net CO2-emissions of the four scenarios for the global plastic sector.

These emission lines are the same as the solid net emission lines of Fig. 3; biogenic emissions are assumed to be renewable and therefore have no net contribution to climate change.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Global plastic flows and stocks for the 2 °C scenario (SSP2-2.6) in the year 2050.

The numbers represent the plastic flows and stocks in million metric tonnes (Mt). Processing losses in sorting and mechanical recycling are allocated to other waste treatment options. Chemical recycling refers to pyrolysis and its processing losses are assumed to be emitted.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Global plastic flows and stocks for the 2 °C-CE scenario in the year 2050.

The numbers represent the plastic flows and stocks in million metric tonnes (Mt). Processing losses in sorting and mechanical recycling are allocated to other waste treatment options. Chemical recycling refers to pyrolysis and its processing losses are assumed to be emitted.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Global plastic flows and stocks for the 2 °C-CBE scenario in the year 2050.

The numbers represent the plastic flows and stocks in million metric tonnes (Mt). Processing losses in sorting and mechanical recycling are allocated to other waste treatment options. Chemical recycling refers to pyrolysis and its processing losses are assumed to be emitted.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Overview of the PLAIA model.

Adapted from ref. 13; the green boxes describe the inputs into PLAIA coming from other modules of the IMAGE model (e.g., availability and costs of resources) or exogenously set inputs (e.g., carbon price, economic & population development).

Extended Data Fig. 8 Sensitivity analysis of the global plastic sector’s cumulative net CO2-emissions (2020–2100).

This figure shows how changes in model variables affect the cumulative net CO2-emissions (2020–2100) of the global plastic sector over its entire life cycle.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Net CO2 emissions of the global plastic sector over the entire life cycle with different shared socioeconomic pathways (SSP).

Biogenic emissions are assumed to be renewable and therefore have no net contribution to climate change. The narratives behind the shared socioeconomic pathways are described in ref. 15.

Extended Data Fig. 10 Global annual plastic production with different shared socioeconomic pathways (SSP).

The narratives behind the shared socioeconomic pathways are described in ref. 15.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Additional results and key input variables for this article. The results are provided by scenario, region and year for the period 2005–2100.

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Stegmann, P., Daioglou, V., Londo, M. et al. Plastic futures and their CO2 emissions. Nature 612, 272–276 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-05422-5

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