The plastics consumed yearly by Australians have a greenhouse emissions impact equivalent to 5.7m cars – more than a third of the cars on Australia’s roads, new analysis suggests.

A report commissioned by the Australian Marine Conservation Society and WWF Australia has found that the plastics consumed nationally in the 2019-20 financial year created 16m tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Quantifying the footprint of the production, transport and waste management of plastics consumed in Australia, the report projected that these emissions would more than double to 42.5m tonnes annually by 2050.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society plastics campaign manager, Shane Cucow, said research into the climate impact of plastics in Australia was previously limited because 87% of plasticconsumed in the country was imported.

Australia generated more single-use plastic waste per capita than any country except Singapore.

“It really is quite alarming,” Cucow said. “You think that Australia is quite a small country, but we’re consuming a lot more plastic than others.”

Kate Noble, the policy manager of WWF Australia’s No Plastics in Nature program, said: “While plastic is not one of the biggest emitters, and the focus on the biggest emitters is absolutely right, it’s also right that we should understand what the impact of our growing plastic consumption is in terms of emissions.”

Recycling did not have as much impact on reducing emissions as experts had thought. “The conversation over the past 10 years has been really about how we recycle more. This research really makes it clear that we are facing more than a recycling challenge – we’re facing a consumption challenge,” Noble said.

Cucow said: “The scenario analysis projecting out to 2050 showed [increasing recycling alone] would only result in something like a 10% reduction in the overall accumulated emissions over that time.”

“The most effective way to bring down emissions from plastic is to reduce our overall consumption,” Cucow said.

The report recommend three actions that would reduce the emissions from plastic by more than 70% in 2050:

  • Cutting total plastic consumption by at least 10%.

  • Increasing plastic recovery and recycling, powered by renewables.

  • Halting the production of plastics made from virgin fossil fuels.

Over 20 years, plastic made from virgin fossil fuels was 2.2 and 2.7 times more emissions-intensive than mechanically recycled plastic and plant-based plastic respectively, the modelling showed. The analysis also showed that chemical recycling was significantly more emissions-intensive than traditional mechanical recycling.

skip past newsletter promotion

“With the bulk of our plastics coming from overseas, we really need global standards and regulations around the use of plastic,” Cucow said. Binding obligations as part of a global plastics treaty – which is currently being drafted – would play a key role, he said.

Last month, the federal government announced that mandatory rules would be imposed on industry to reduce packaging waste and boost recycling.

Comparison of emissions associated with different plastic production methods

Dr Deborah Lau, who leads the CSIRO’s Ending Plastic Waste mission and was not involved in the report, said the analysis “recognises that carbon emissions should not be the only environmental measure when considering alternatives to plastic products”.

“Plastic pollution can have detrimental impacts to our environment, economy and wellbeing. With plastic production and carbon emissions predicted to grow, this highlights the need for solutions to reduce plastic waste and increase circularity,” she said.

“No single action alone can overcome the challenge. We need a whole of system response to tackle the issue. This includes reducing plastic consumption, developing alternatives to traditional plastic production, decarbonising energy inputs, and increasing plastic circularity.”

The lead author of the report, Carbon emissions assessment of Australian plastics consumption, was Kyle O’Farrell, the director of the environmental consultancy Blue Environment.

The report assessed the impacts of the five most commonly used polymers – polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polypropylene, and polylactic acid.

Leave a comment

Plastic Education