Last updated: 21 Mar 2024

Over the past decades, plastic production has been growing exponentially. Learn more about these trends and the industry behind it with the resources below. This page is part of our Plastics and the Environment series, a set of online resources on the plastics crisis, its impact on people and the environment, and international cooperation to address this global problem. They include resources and news from organizations in Geneva and beyond, including UN-system organizations and other IOs, governmental authorities, civil society organizations, academic institutions and journals, and renowned newspapers.

Trends in Plastic Production

The plastics industry began in the early 1900s when the first synthetic plastic was created in the U.S. Since the industry began, annual global plastic production has exploded from some 1.5 million metric tons in 1950 to 359 million metric tons in 2018 (Statista, 2020). Of the 376 Mt produced in 2019, 133 Mt, (35%) were for single-use plastics to be used almost entirely for packaging (Plastic Makers Index, 2021). Syntethic fibers, like nylon and polyester are another major output of plastic production, with annual increases of 65 Mt in the past 30 years. The costruction, transportation, electrical, and electronic production, agriculture and medical sectors are among those that use up most of plastic production. The cumulative production of plastic surpassed eight billion metric tons worldwide. Current investments in petrochemical infrastructure are supporting this trend for the decades to come. This exponential trend means that the plastic crisis will only get worse if no action is taken.

According to a 2023 report by the Nordic Council of Ministers and Systemiq, under the business-as-usual scenario, the annual levels of mismanaged plastics would continue to rise and could almost double from 110 million tonnes (Mt onwards) in 2019 to 205 Mt by 2040, an 86% increase. Annual production of virgin plastics would increase from 430 Mt in 2019 to 712 Mt by 2040, a 66% increase. GHG emissions from the plastic system could further increase from 1.9 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) per year in 2019 to 3.1 GtCO2e by 2040, an increase of 63%.

Global plastic production since 1950. Source: P. Ryan, 2015.

The Industry Behind Plastics

As 99% of plastics are created from chemicals of fossil origin, plastic production is closed linked to the petrochemical industry. The rapid global growth of the plastic industry is largely fueled by the availability of cheap shale gas and growing investments from the fossil industries. Indeed, petrochemicals are expected to be the largest driver of global oil demand growth from now through 2040, outpacing its use in transportation, industry, in power, or in buildings. The strong linkages between plastics and fossil fuel also mean that plastics is one large driver of climate change. Plastic production is an important contributor to global emissions associated with air and water pollution, as well as oil spills leading to toxic contaminations. An independent report commissioned by the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions and published in April 2023 found that up to 13,000 chemicals are possibly used in plastics as monomers, additives, processing aids and NIAS. Out of these, 3,200 are verified to be chemicals of potential concern, but the figure could be bigger considering that hazard data is missing for 6,000 chemicals. Moreover, only 1% of chemicals of concern used in plastics are regulated under MEAs, such as the Stockholm Convention, the Minamata Convention, and the Montreal Protocol. These represent gross health and human rights threats which could be prevented with the adoption of safety storage and disposal procedures of toxic substances.

Addressing Plastic Pollution from the Production Stage

Considering the scope and impacts of plastic pollution, an increasing number of actors from governments, civil society and academia are calling for efforts to tackle the crisis at its source by reducing plastic production. With current and expected levels of plastic production, end-of-the-pipe solutions, such as waste management and clean-up, are unlikely to be sufficient to efficiently tackle the plastic crisis. A report published in September 2022 by CIEL and Break Free From Plastic revealed that reducing plastic production, especially for single-use plastics, would also be a win-win with regards to the ongoing energy crisis in Europe. As plastic production accounts for 9% of EU fossil gas consumption, measures in the sector could help ensure energy security while addressing climate change and pollution.

The Giant Plastic Tap spewing plastics sourced from Kibera was displayed in Nairobi during the 5th UN Environment Assembly under the slogan “Turn Off the Plastic Tap”. The installation was created by international artist and activist Benjamin Von Wong.

The Perpetual Plastic Machine – a colossal 15-foot-tall art installation created by artist Benjamin Von Wong in collaboration with Greenpeace represents a giant, working machine that shows the toxic relationship between fossil fuels and plastic production. It was located at Musée d’Orsay while the second session of INC the plastic pollution took place in Paris. © Benjamin Von Wong

More on the Plastics Crisis

Our special series “Plastics and the Environment” provides resources on the status of the global plastic pollution, its impact on people and the environment, and international cooperation to address the plastics crisis.