The future of plastics

This plastic is completely biodegradable and largely made from renewable raw materials. The image shows the just 15 micrometre thick layer of Ecovio® FS Paper over the cellulose fibres of a paper surface.

Oxford scientists launch ambitious roadmap for circular carbon plastics economy.

Our current global plastics system is completely unsustainable, and we need to be implementing these series of very bold measures at scale, and fast.

Ambitious targets to help deliver a sustainable and net zero plastic economy have been proposed by researchers from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Plastics, University of Oxford.

The authors argue for a rethinking of the technical, economic, and policy paradigms that have entrenched the status-quo, one of rising carbon emissions and uncontrolled pollution in a paper published in Nature.

Currently the global plastics system results in over a gigatonne per annum (Gt/annum) of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions which is the same as the total combined emissions of Europe’s three largest economies (UK, Germany and France). If left unchecked, these emissions could rise to 4-5 Gt/annum with other sources of pollution also causing concern. 


Another problem is the lack of effective recycling – in 2019, only nine per cent of the world's plastic waste was turned into new products through mechanical recycling. The majority ended up in landfills or was incinerated, and a significant proportion was mismanaged, ending up polluting terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

The authors analyse the current and future global plastics system, proposing technical, legal, and economic interventions from now until 2050 to allow it to transition to net zero emissions and to reduce other negative environmental impacts. The study includes a future scenario centred on four targets:

  • Reducing future plastics demand by one half, substituting and eliminating over-use of plastic materials and products.
  • Changing the way plastics are manufactured to replace fossil fuels as the hydrocarbon source to use only renewably raw materials, including waste biomass and carbon dioxide.
  • For plastics which are recoverable, maximising recycling very significantly, targeting 95% recycling of those materials which are retrievable from wastes.
  • Integrating plastic manufacturing and recycling with renewable power and minimising all other negative environmental impacts, including of additives.


Our current global plastics system is completely unsustainable, and we need to be implementing these series of very bold measures at scale, and fast.

The authors emphasise the need for concerted action across all four target areas to ensure the global plastics systems curbs its climate impacts and meets UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Charlotte Williams, professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford’s department of chemistry and lead author, said: "We need plastics and polymers, including for future low emission technologies like electric vehicles, wind turbines, and for many essential everyday materials. 

"Our current global plastics system is completely unsustainable, and we need to be implementing these series of very bold measures at scale, and fast. This is a solvable problem but it needs coherent and combined action, particularly from chemical manufacturers."

To successfully transition the plastics system, the authors set out principles to ensure ‘smart materials design’ and differentiate between plastics which are recoverable and irretrievable after use.

The authors note that there is not a one size fits all solution. Rather, they propose careful use of the design principles to help select the optimum production methods and appropriate use of resources, deliver the required performances, ensure waste management, and minimise broader environmental impacts. A timeline of technical-economic-policy and legal interventions helps readers focus on the actions needed to reach net zero emissions by 2050.


Fernando Vidal, a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry at POLYMAT in Spain and former Oxford Martin School fellow on the future of plastics concluded, co-authored the study. They said: "The time for action has arrived, we cannot afford to wait any longer.

"We must change our concepts around the way we make, use, and dispose of plastics, otherwise we risk perpetuating this problem. The upcoming UN Global Plastic Treaty is the opportunity to make a lasting change in the right direction."

Cameron Hepburn, the Battcock professor of environmental economics at the Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and a co-athor, said: "The problem is that plastics, while contributing hugely to global pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, are extraordinarily useful. 

"Our research finds that creating a circular economy for plastics in order to reduce their negative impacts is possible, but only if we can reduce future demand by half, switch to renewable plastics that aren’t made from fossil fuels, recycle 95 percent of what’s left, and minimise environmental impacts at every step of the process.

"The challenge is enormous, but we present a roadmap to transform the whole system, including through the smart design of plastics, economic and legal interventions, and a shift away from overconsumption."

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article is based on a press release from Oxford Unviersity. The paper ‘Designing a Circular Carbon and Plastics Economy for a Sustainable Future’ is now available online.

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