SOFT&GREEN Insights

Plastics around the world: the numbers

Global production of plastic is constantly growing and does not look set to decrease. From 15 million tonnes in 1964, production increased to about 400 million tonnes in 2016. These figures give us an opportunity to reflect: in 1989, 100 million tonnes were produced, in 2000 around 200, and in 2009 as many as 250. In 1990, production exceeded that of steel and today plastic is the third most widespread human material on Earth after steel and cement. The virgin plastics produced since 2000 equal all the plastics produced in the previous 50 years.

Production and use.
Before we ask ourselves how much plastic ends up in the oceans, it is important to know who produces it and who uses it. The largest producer in the world is China, responsible for 29% of total plastics. The 2016 data is reported by Plastics – the Facts, which analyses the sector, market and trends and was published by PlasticsEurope (the association of European plastics manufacturers). The report was produced in collaboration with the association of recyclers, Epro. In second place is Europe with 19%, followed by North American countries with 18%. Asia produces half of all plastics in the world, while Africa and the Middle East together account for 7% and Latin America for 4%.

Europe is still one of the largest users: the demand for plastics is the highest and has reached 49.9 million tonnes (2016 data). The ranking shows six countries that alone reach 70% of European consumption of thermoplastics, polyurethanes and thermosets:

  • Germany 24%
  • Italy 14%
  • France 9.6%
  • Spain 7.7%
  • United Kingdom 7.5%
  • Poland 6.3%

The production chain.
From an economic point of view, the supply chain (manufacturers, converters, recyclers and manufacturers of machinery and equipment) carries extremely significant weight. There are nearly 60,000 companies in Europe, including many SMEs, employing more than 1.5 million people. Turnover is close to €350 billion, with a positive trade balance of around €15 billion. According to Plastics – the Facts, the sector has contributed 30 billion euros to public finances and welfare.

Use and environmental impact.
Plastic has multiple uses. Packaging occupies first place with 39.9%. This is followed by construction with 19.7%, automotive with 10% and the electrical/electronic sector with 6.2%. Finally, with regard to disposal, some experts say that 104 million tonnes of plastics will be dispersed into the natural environment by 2030 if we do not further increase our efforts to improve waste management globally. A perspective that surely gives us cause to reflect.