Growing environmental footprint of plastics driven by coal combustion

Livia Cabernard, Stephan Pfister, Christopher Oberschelp, Stefanie Hellweg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

153 Scopus citations


Research on the environmental impacts from the global value chain of plastics has typically focused on the disposal phase, considered most harmful to the environment and human health. However, the production of plastics is also responsible for substantial environmental, health and socioeconomic impacts. We show that the carbon and particulate-matter-related health footprint of plastics has doubled since 1995, due mainly to growth in plastics production in coal-based economies. Coal-based emissions have quadrupled since 1995, causing almost half of the plastics-related carbon and particulate-matter-related health footprint in 2015. Plastics-related carbon footprints of China’s transportation, Indonesia’s electronics industry and India’s construction sector have increased more than 50-fold since 1995. In 2015, plastics caused 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, 6% of global coal electricity is used for plastics production. The European Union and the United States have increasingly consumed plastics produced in coal-based economies. In 2015, 85% of the workforce required for plastics consumed by the European Union and the United States was employed abroad, but 80% of the related value added was generated domestically. As high-income regions have outsourced the energy-intensive steps of plastics production to coal-based economies, renewable energy investments throughout the plastics value chain are critical for sustainable production and consumption of plastics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-148
Number of pages10
JournalNature Sustainability
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2022
Externally publishedYes


Dive into the research topics of 'Growing environmental footprint of plastics driven by coal combustion'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this