Single-use plastic waste is at record levels, with hefty climate toll, report warns

By Dana Drugmand

From grocery store bags and soda bottles to take-out containers and food packaging, single-use, disposable plastic is a pervasive problem that presents not just waste management problems, but considerable harmful climate impacts as well, according to a new report.

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with single-use plastic amounted to roughly 450 million metric tons of CO2 -equivalent in 2021, comparable to the total emissions of the United Kingdom, a new analysis has determined.

The Plastic Waste Makers Index released this week by the Australian-based Minderoo Foundation reports that there is more single-use plastic waste than ever – 139 million metric tons in 2021, an increase of 6 million metric tons from the 2019 amount – and that this fossil fuel-based plastic generated hundreds of millions of metric tons of climate pollution. Conventional recycling can help reduce these emissions, but recycling is not scaling fast enough and is expected to remain marginal, the report finds.

“This is a much needed, if devastating report. It demonstrates more clearly than ever how much single-use plastics blight our environment, and are themselves a key driver of climate change. And also that recycling is far, far behind where it needs to be,” Toby Gardner, senior research fellow at Stockholm Environment Institute and a contributor to the report, said in a statement.

The report updates a previous analysis of single-use plastic waste released by Minderoo Foundation in 2021, which identified for the first time the 20 largest petrochemical companies that are the sources for much of the world’s single-use plastic production. According to the new report, ExxonMobil leads the pack, followed by Chinese petrochemical giant Sinopec, and then Dow.

As the report explains, the majority of the emissions occur upstream during the production process, including fossil fuel extraction and refining of the petrochemical feedstocks that go into plastics.