Global Plastic Production Rises, Recycling Lags

Gaelle Gourmelon | Jan 27, 2015


For more than 50 years, global production of plastic has continued to rise.1 Some 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, representing a 3.9 percent increase over 2012's output.2 With a market driven by consumerism and convenience, along with the comparatively low price of plastic materials, demand for plastic is growing.3 Recovery and recycling, however, remain insufficient, and millions of tons of plastics end up in landfills and oceans each year.4

Plastics are human-made materials manufactured from polymers, or long chains of repeating molecules.5 They are derived from oil, natural gas, and—while still a small portion of overall production—increasingly, from plants like corn and sugarcane.6 About 4 percent of the world’s petroleum is used to make plastic, and another 4 percent is used to power plastic manufacturing processes.7

First invented in the 1860s but developed for industry in the 1920s, plastic production exploded in the 1940s, becoming one of the fastest-growing global industries.8 From 1950 to 2012, plastics growth averaged 8.7 percent per year, booming from 1.7 million tons to the nearly 300 million tons of today.9 Worldwide production continued to grow between the 1970s and 2012 as plastics gradually replaced materials like glass and metal.10 Metal, glass, and paper are increasingly replaced by plastic packaging, particularly for foods. By 2009, plastic packaging accounted for 30 percent of packaging sales.11 With the push by U.S. federal mileage standards to reduce the weight of vehicles, the American automobile industry has been a champion of this transition too. Plastics make up about 10 percent by weight (50 percent by volume) of a typical U.S. vehicle today, representing 336 pounds of plastic per vehicle.12 In 1960, less than 20 pounds of plastic were used in cars.13 Plastics now often replace metals in bumpers and door panels as well as in engine components.

Plastic Figure 1

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