Headimage abstract

Carbon footprint of fossil plastics: higher than previously assumed

Bar chart on newly calculated values for the carbon footprint of naphtha, polyethylene, polypropylene and plyethylene terephthalate (PET)

Petroleum-based plastics are said to have a higher carbon footprint than previously assumed.

This is based on updated data from the Swiss environmental data centre Ecoinvent, according to the Renewable Carbon Initiative (RCI). The updated data in database versions 3.9 and 3.10 added end of 2023 contain new data on fossil raw materials and plastics. According to the information provided, the data also includes all methane emissions from the extraction and processing of crude oil and natural gas for the first time. As part of the comprehensive revision, database version 3.9 are said to include in particular an update of the natural gas and crude oil supply chains (production, long-distance transport and regional distribution). The geographical coverage had also been expanded and now covers 90 per cent of global crude oil production and almost 80 per cent of natural gas production. In the v3.10 database, key chemical base materials and their derivatives would have been newly recorded in order to update their data. These included short-chain alkenes such as ethylene and propylene, monocyclic aromatics (e.g. benzene, toluene), ethylene oxide and ethylene glycol. Further updates concerned the expansion of technological and geographical coverage for ethylene, propylene, hydrogen and methanol. Ecoinvent v3.10 also introduces data for China, the United States and Europe. In addition, as part of a collaboration between IFEU, Plastics Europe and Ecoinvent, the transparency of processes in the production of polyolefins (PE, PP), PVC and PET is said to have been increased.
As a result of the database updates, the average carbon footprint of crude oil and natural gas and their downstream products had increased significantly in the latest version 3.10, the RCI reports. For example, the carbon footprint of fossil naphtha had almost doubled and the carbon footprints of standard plastics have increased by around 30 per cent (PET 26 per cent, PE 34 per cent and PP 30 per cent). According to the RCI, the current data can serve as a starting point for re-examining the impact of fossil raw materials in detail and taking them into account appropriately in life cycle assessments. Many calculations of carbon footprints or the product carbon footprint would have to be recalculated on the basis of the updated data. It was to be expected that previous comparisons between fossil and non-fossil plastics will continue to shift in favour of non-fossil plastics. For example, the production and processing of bio-based plastics could emit 40 to 50 per cent less carbon dioxide than their fossil-based counterparts.
Michael Carus, Managing Director of the Renewable Carbon Initiative (RCI), says: "The defossilisation of the chemical industry is more important for climate protection than previously assumed." The importance of biobased and CO₂-based carbon had been underestimated because the data for crude oil and natural gas had been systematically glossed over. Carus hopes the results to have an impact on European policy. Bio-based, CO₂-based and recycled products should play a much greater role in future policy, according to Carus. For example, in the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) or in the Transition Pathway for the chemical industry.
The Renewable Carbon Initiative (RCI) is a global network of more than 60 companies committed to supporting and accelerating the transition from fossil carbon to renewable carbon (bio-based, CO₂-based and recycled) for all organic chemicals and materials.

  • Press release Renewable Carbon Initiative (23.2.2024)
  • Image: © Nova Institute

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