11 December 2009 - Major new study on environmental footprint of plastics previewed ahead of COP15

Report highlights the ‘Plastics Paradox’ of carbon savings through use

The plastics industry today unveiled the preliminary conclusions of the most definitive study to date on the environmental impact of plastics and its applications. The study provides the clearest picture yet of the CO2 emissions of plastics and their role in fighting climate change.

Undertaken by independent Austrian sustainable development consultancy Denkstatt, the study challenges some of the more negative perceptions around the material’s environmental credentials. Among other conclusions, it reveals that plastics represent only 1.3% of the average European’s carbon footprint (compared with 9% clothing, 13% food, 18% recreation and leisure, for example). On balance, plastics save 5-9 times more CO2 during the use and recovery stages of their lifecycle, compared with the CO2 emitted during their production (the Carbon Balance). This ratio is set to improve to savings of 9-15 times by 2020 through advancements in production and the increasing efficiency of plastic products.

The sneak preview was presented during the Copenhagen Business Day, an event integrated into the city’s COP15 activities, organised by the ICC and World Business Council of Sustainable Development. The findings of the study offer a valuable input from the industry ahead of the UN’s Climate Change talks about future CO2 reduction targets.

Wilfred Haensel, Executive Director of PlasticsEurope commented: “What this study clearly shows is the “plastics paradox”: the more you use, the more you save. Sustainable consumption plays a key role in CO2 emissions and we need to count on a material which can save us oil equivalent to 194 very large crude carriers per year.” Dr. Haensel concluded by saying: “It’s for these reasons that we need consumers, politicians and business leaders to recognise the role of plastics in achieving the targets which will come out of Copenhagen.”

For more information on the “Impact of Plastics on life cycle energy consumptions and GHG emissions in Europe’’ Denkstatt Study, please contact Chris Welton, Head of Communications PlasticsEurope, +32 2 676 7443 / chris.welton@plasticseurope.org

Main conclusions of the Denkstatt Study:

   1. Substitution of plastics where it is feasible with traditional materials would:
  • Generate 3.7 times more mass (impacting waste management)
  • Result in 50% more GHG (120 million tonnes per annum) and
  • Lead to 46% more energy being consumed (2 300 TJ, Tera = 1012)
   2. Greenhouse gas emissions savings resulting from the use of plastics:
  • The current savings are comparable with the entire CO2 emissions of Belgium
  • These savings currently represent 38% of the original EU15’s original Kyoto CO2 reduction target (or relate 15% to EU27’s 2020 target of 780 million tonnes)
  • The absence of plastics from the materials spectrum would effectively impair the EU’s ability to meet its Kyoto GHG reduction targets
   3. Energy savings resulting from the use of plastics:
  •  Energy efficiencies contribute strongly to emissions reductions
  • 2, 300 million GJ less energy consumed per annum
  • 50 million tonnes less of crude oil per year (194 vlcc’s: very large crude carriers)
   4. Based upon some of the current trends - a forward projection to the potential scenario in 2020:
  • Plastics represent a small proportion of the average European’s carbon footprint (1.3%)
  • The carbon balance (the ratio of the carbon intensity of production in relation to the savings and benefits across the life cycle) is presently in the range of 5-9
  • This carbon ratio is set to improve to between 9-15 by 2020; indicating that the benefits in use in the future are far higher than the additional emissions from the growth of plastics
  • Plastics materials play a key role in the generation of renewable energy
  • Plastics are an enabler of new technologies which significantly reduce resource use (e.g. de-materialisation in memory cards or MP3 players)
  • Plastics used for thermal insulation, for food packaging or to produce renewable energy enable extraordinary “use”-benefits.
Word document of Press release

Press Contact:
PlasticsEurope AISBL
Chris Welton
Phone: +32 (0)2 676 7443

Editors' note:

PlasticsEurope is one of the leading European trade associations with centers in Brussels, Frankfurt, London, Madrid, Milan and Paris. We are networking with European and national plastics associations and have more than 100 member companies, producing over 90% of all polymers across the EU27 member states plus Norway, Switzerland, Croatia and Turkey.

The European plastics industry makes a significant contribution to the welfare in Europe by enabling innovation, creating quality of life to citizens and facilitating resource efficiency and climate protection. More than 1.6 million people are working in about 50.000 companies (mainly small and medium sized companies in the converting sector) to create a turnover in excess of 300 billion € per year.

The plastics industry includes polymer producers - represented by PlasticsEurope, converters - represented by EuPC and machine manufacturers - represented by EUROMAP. For further info see the web links: www.plasticseurope.org, www.plasticsconverters.eu, www.euromap.org