Right now, plastics use about 6 percent of the world's oil. But with more and more plastics in our lives, it's going to be 20 percent of world oil consumption by 2050.
That's according to a January study, The New Plastics Economy, from the World Economic Forum. This is the study that got headlines for saying that by 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean, measured by weight.
2050 is a long time away and you wonder about projections that far out.
But that 20 percent figure seems reasonable, given that plastics manufacturing has grown exponentially, from 15 million metric tons globally in the 1960s to just over 300 million tonnes now, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Right now, the industry argues that because plastics are a very small part of oil consumption, they're not a big contributor to gobbling up non-renewable resources or to increasing carbon footprints.
I heard those arguments a lot when I lived in China and covered the Asian industry. They were made again at this year's Asia Plastics Forum, held in late January in Bangladesh.
The head of the Malaysian Plastics Forum argued that plastics help the environment by making other things more energy efficient by, for example, making cars and commercial airliners lighter so they use less fuel.
It's a good point. WEF agrees: it says that plastics “can bring resource efficiency gains during use.”
But WEF also argues that because global plastics use will triple by 2050 (to something close to 1 billion tonnes a year) a lot more will need to be done to reduce the impact from its production and disposal.
Plastics, WEF said, will make up 15 percent of the world's annual carbon budget by 2050.
The report says that is “the budget that must be adhered to in order to achieve the internationally accepted goal to remain below a 2° C increase in global warming.”
So the arguments that plastics are a small (4-8 percent) link in the fossil fuel chain will become less and less true.
Plastics as a material will face more scrutiny from governments, NGOs and consumers than it faces even today, in what seems like a heavily scrutinized era.
Right now, the average U.S. resident buys products with about 110 kilograms of plastic a year. In India, it's 10 kg, in China its 45 kg and in Brazil it's a little more than 30 kg.
As that gap closes between developed and developing countries, it's easy to see why plastics production will triple globally.
It's also easy to see the public health problems caused by overburdened waste management systems in India that can't handle that growth.
It's not just developing economies. California is pushing the industry to cut packaging waste in half by 2020 on the way to recycling 75 percent of the state's overall waste stream.
Personally, I think the industry in the U.S. should stop fighting plastic bag fees and endorse proactive recycling policies like bottle bills.
I'm repeating a point I've made before, but if the success of plastics means it's going to hit 1 billion tons of production by 2050 and be a much larger part of our fossil fuel consumption — in the neighborhood of 15 percent of the world's carbon budget — industry needs to be more proactive.