As a gas shortage threatens the EU, its members are looking to consumers to bear the brunt of cuts while also pursuing agreements to secure new fossil fuel supplies. At the same time, policymakers are leaving the plastics and petrochemicals sector untouched, which is the single largest driver of the increase in global oil and gas demand.
An analysis of the European plastics and petrochemicals markets by Break Free From Plastic and the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) makes the case that the EU, which imports more than 20% of its oil and nearly 40% of its gas from Russia, can improve energy security by reducing the energy-intensive activities of these sectors.
“Plastics and petrochemicals are the largest industrial oil, gas, and electricity users in the EU, with nearly 40% of that energy going towards producing plastic packaging alone. Not including this sector in the “Save Gas for a Safer Winter” plan is a serious oversight. While families and small businesses are facing skyrocketing energy bills, the petrochemical industry is wasting scarce resources to produce unnecessary single-use plastic, fueling the EU energy crisis,” said Delphine Lévi Alvarès, European Coordinator of the Break Free From Plastic movement.
The report’s main findings include:
- Plastic production was responsible for nearly 9% and 8% of the EU’s final fossil gas and oil consumption in 2020. This is about as much as the final gas consumption in the Netherlands and almost as much as the final oil consumption of Italy in 2020.
- Plastic production is the most energy- and feedstock-intensive of the petrochemical industry’s processes. Plastic packaging alone accounts for 40% of the end market for plastic products in the EU, about as much as Hungary’s final gas and Sweden and Denmark’s combined oil consumption in 2020.
- Nearly 15% of the final gas and 14% of the final oil consumption in 2020 in the EU 27 were used to manufacture petrochemicals.
- In the EU in 2020, 38% of the gas and 22% of the oil came from Russia, making the energy-intensive petrochemical industry significantly reliant on Russian fossil fuels.
- Together, Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland are responsible for 75% of oil, 81% of final gas consumption, and 77% of all plastic packaging waste in the EU.
The report finds that as the plastics industry plans to double its gas and oil-based production over the next 20 years, it is incompatible with achieving the EU’s goals, including those laid out in the Green Deal, binding climate targets to keep global warming under 1.5 °C, and efforts to tackle plastic pollution.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine lays bare the danger of our global dependence on fossil fuels. Expecting individual consumer action is an inadequate and disproportionate response to the scale and intensity of the crisis at hand,” said Lili Fuhr, Deputy Director of CIEL’s Climate & Energy Program. “EU leaders must stop their neocolonialist hunt for new sources of fossil fuels and instead confront the problem head-on by immediately reducing the production of plastic, starting with unnecessary single-use plastic packaging to save gas.”
The report details concrete policy recommendations for the EU to reduce fossil fuel use for petrochemical and plastic production through ambitious prevention and reuse policies. These include regional action and efforts to step up ambition on upstream measures during upcoming negotiations on a legally-binding global plastic treaty.
“With a 50% reduction in plastic packaging and a 90% rate of recycling, we could save the equivalent of the Czech Republic’s annual oil and gas consumption. This is a huge opportunity for the EU to address the energy, climate and plastic pollution crises at once,” said Lévi Alvarès. “It’s time for the EU to demonstrate real leadership. For a safer winter, plastic has to go.”