Stuck in plastic: carbon lock-ins make the transition difficult

The plastic industry is strongly dependent on fossil fuels throughout the plastic value chain, with large environmental impact and growing carbon dioxide emissions as a result. This is shown in a new research synthesis by STEPS researchers. Nevertheless, policymakers and industry mostly suggest one sided or insufficient initiatives. But with the right efforts, the plastic system can become sustainable, believes Fredric Bauer, who is one of the authors.

– Our synthesis shows how dependent the plastic industry is on using fossil resources such as oil and gas and how this is institutionalised throughout the value chain. We have to become much more aware of these connections if we want to make changes, says Fredric Bauer, researcher within STEPS, and assistant university lecturer at Environmental and Energy Systems at Lund University.

Together with colleagues in STEPS at Lund University, IVL Swedish Environmental Institute and Cambridge University, he has identified factors that create carbon lock-ins, or barriers, within all steps in the global plastic value chain. The lock-ins have arisen because of the inertia that exists within, and is created by, large fossil fuel-based energy systems. In combination with a strong reluctance on the part of many companies to change their operations the development of alternative energy technologies, sustainable systems and increased use of renewable raw materials is hampered. The researchers’ global analysis covers recent years of plastics research and is based on more than 150 research articles, reports and books.

Lock-ins in the plastics global value chain divided by area:

1. Production

Infrastructure, production technology and material flows are based on fossil raw materials, where processes and systems are integrated to use fossil fuels. In many cases, it is the same or closely connected factories that process both oil and gas that produce plastic. It is a challenge to change the production to use renewable feedstock, especially when it comes to the use of gas (mainly ethane from fracking in the USA) which is used by many of the industries that have been built up in recent years. The same technology cannot be used for renewable raw materials.

2. Use

An ever-growing demand for plastic – at the right price. The cheap fossil-based plastic, combined with the material’s almost infinite functional properties, pushes out alternative materials and renewable feedstocks.. Societies have learned to use plastic as a disposable material in online shopping, the takeaway industry and the food industry. Plastic is crowding out other textile materials such as cotton and wool, with polyester accounting for more than half of global fiber production. Consumers, in turn, expect the plastic to behave, and look, in a certain way.

3. Waste management

The majority of global plastic waste is placed in landfills or open dump sites, leading to plastic leakage into the environment. In the Western world, the incineration of plastic has increased, but this leads to carbon dioxide emissions. Although recycling is important for creating more circular systems, less than ten percent is recycled globally. The illegal trade in plastic waste has increased after countries such as China restricted the import of plastic waste for recycling.

4. Industrial organization

The plastic and chemical industries are integrated and controls the entire value chain for plastic production. There are vested interests and historically strong connections between companies that extract oil and gas and plastic producers. There is also a reluctance to think in new ways, and a market logic for fossil-based plastic production dominates. Major investments are investing in facilities to expand the production of fossil-based plastics and other chemicals, facilities that can be used for decades to come.

5. Policy and governance

The governance of plastic production and use has historically been fragmented and weak because plastics are used in many sectors. This means that regulations span different policy areas. There are large governmental interests in the plastic and chemical industries, and too much faith in self-regulation in the market. Furthermore, lobbying activities are ongoing to mitigate various interventions. However, bans on single-use plastic products, restrictions on the export of plastic waste, and a focus on circular systems are factors that can contribute to making the plastic system more sustainable.

By summarizing carbon lock-ins throughout the value chain, as well as pointing out how industrial organisation and governance wield influence, Fredric Bauer and his colleagues want to stress the importance of integrated efforts regarding plastics. Such an analysis has been missing, they believe. Something that has led to one sided and insufficient efforts, such as the large focus on single-use plastic products, which also marks the Swedish government’s new action plan for plastics that was published in the spring of 2022.

Three ways forward for plastics

Fredric Bauer still believes that the possibilities for breaking plastic’s strong dependence on fossil fuels, and making the plastic system sustainable, are good – if different sectors of society cooperate. Change can be achieved by concentrating efforts in three different areas: smart use, renewables materials and circular systems.

These three pathways were already identified in 2018 within the research program STEPS, Sustainable Plastics and Transition Pathways, which is led by Lund University.

– Plastics is an incredibly complex area. But with clear goals, better knowledge of what is inhibiting the transition, and stronger governance in the long term, we can hopefully reverse the trend, he concludes.

Facts about plastic investments and emissions

In the period from 2010 to 2019, 221 billion euros were invested in the US alone to expand the production of plastics and other chemicals, largely driven by shale gas production. In China, investments in the chemical industry amounted to 748 billion euros during the same period. Investments that can be used for decades to come. Production and consumption of plastic is behind the emission of almost 2,000 million tons of CO2 equivalents, corresponding to 4 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Download the article: Plastics and climate change—Breaking carbon lock-ins through three mitigation pathways. Den är publicerad i tidskriften One Earth.