10 July 2023


Around 90% of the plastics we use in Australia are virgin plastics. This means they’re made from fossil fuels – oil and gas.

And while much research has focused on the impacts of plastic consumption and pollution on animals and nature, much less is known about the climate impacts of plastic consumption, while other industries are decreasing their emissions..

Researchers have estimated that globally, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production and management are around 4% of all emissions, but this is increasing globally were equivalent to all emissions from the whole of the UK.

But while we have a few top line figures on the global impacts of plastic on climate change, we know very little about how this is playing out in Australia.

Until now.

Calculating the climate impact of plastic consumption in Australia

We worked with leading plastics and waste experts at Blue Environment to build a model that could put a figure on greenhouse gas emissions resulting from plastic consumption, and the results were confronting.

Our modelling found that Australia’s plastics use produced more than 16 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in 2020. This number includes emissions from production (mostly overseas) and waste management such as recycling or landfill.

This is equal to the emissions from around 5.7 million cars on the road every year. If we continue on our current path, Australia’s plastic-related emissions are expected to double by 2050.

Emissions from plastic consumption 2023 infographic
Emissions from plastic consumption 2023 infographic © AMCS / WWF-Australia

The research also confirmed that we can’t simply recycle our way out of this mess.

Even if we increased plastic recycling from our current rate of 13% to 100% by 2050, growth in plastic consumption would still mean a huge increase in emissions over the next 25 years.

This is the first research into the hidden climate cost of Australia’s plastics addiction.

What can we do about it?

Blue Environment’s model didn’t just put a figure on plastic-related emissions, it also looked at possible solutions and the impact of these on emissions over the next 25 years.

We examined 11 scenarios, including business as usual, reducing consumption and increasing recycling (at different rates), fully powering plastic production and management with renewables, and a combination of these.

Continuing on our current path was the worst option we modelled, and would see emissions in 2050 equal to two-thirds of all Australian cars on the road today.

But even high levels of recycling won’t deliver much benefit, for the climate and the planet, if we continue to consume plastic at our current rate, and powering plastic production and recycling with renewables, unfortunately, won't tip the scales either.

Reducing consumption is critical, and even a 10% reduction combined with increased recycling and renewables means we could make some serious progress on flattening the curve of plastic-related emissions.

Taken together, these actions could reduce the total emissions of Australia’s plastic consumption by up to 70% by 2050, compared with a business as usual scenario.

And the good news is, that these actions won’t just reduce climate harm, they’ll also reduce plastic waste and pollution.

Are there other ‘hidden costs’ of plastic we’re not counting?

This research helps us to build up the picture of the true cost of plastics for people and planet.

But it’s not the only piece of the puzzle that we’re just starting to fully understand.

We know the ‘true cost’ of plastic isn’t built into the market price, and recent research has aimed to put a figure on these costs.

WWF estimates that the cost of all plastic produced in just one year – 2019 – is around US$3.7 trillion over the ‘lifetime’ of that plastic. Australia’s share of that cost is around US$12.25 billion.

That’s based on the full costs of managing waste, cleaning up plastic pollution, damage to marine industries, and climate impacts – and it’s just based on the plastic we produced and used in one year.

It’s time to act.

These findings are confronting even on their own, and taken together they can be overwhelming.

But the good news is, it helps to build the case we’re taking to governments both in Australia and around the world for urgent action to reduce plastic consumption, more effective waste management, and to keep it out of the environment.

Last month, Australian state, territory and federal governments committed to developing clear rules to reduce packaging waste. This is great news.

We’ll be urging them to take strong action not only on packaging, but also to guarantee our rights to high-quality durable plastic products that are repairable, as well as reuse systems that can reduce plastic use.

Governments from around the world will meet later this year to negotiate a treaty to end plastic pollution. This could be a game-changer in banning the most polluting plastic products, as well as reducing consumption overall and driving up reuse and recycling rates.

Australia is working hard to push for global rules and funding for the hardest hit countries, including our Pacific neighbours. And WWF-Australia will be there every step of the way to help lift governments’ ambition to ensure the UN treaty delivers for Australians and our beautiful Pacific region.

Many Australians are already leading the way in their homes, workplaces and schools to flatten the curve, and this isn’t just making a difference in your own communities. Decision-makers are listening, here and around the world.

To read the full report click here.