Plastics are one of the most widely used materials on the planet, owing to their usefulness, durability, and relatively low cost. Yet, making, using, and disposing of plastics create important environmental impacts, most notably greenhouse gas emissions and waste pollution. Reducing these impacts while still enjoying the benefits of plastic use requires an integrated assessment of all of the life cycles of plastics. This has rarely been attempted due to the wide variety of polymers and the lack of knowledge on the final uses and applications of plastics. Using trade statistics for 464 product codes, we have mapped the flows of the 11 most widely used polymers from production into six end-use applications for the United Kingdom (UK) in 2017. With a dynamic material flow analysis, we have anticipated demand and waste generation until 2050. We found that the demand for plastics seems to have saturated in the UK, with an annual demand of 6 Mt, responsible for approximately 26 Mt CO2e/a. Owing to a limited recycling capacity in the UK, only 12% of UK plastic waste is recycled domestically, leading to 21% of the waste being exported, labeled as recycling, but mostly to countries with poor practices of waste management. Increasing recycling capacity in the UK could both reduce GHG emissions and prevent waste pollution. This intervention should be complemented with improved practices in the production of primary plastics, which currently accounts for 80% of UK plastic emissions.
Keywords: Demand; Greenhouse gas emissions; Plastics; Recycling; Stocks; Trade; United Kingdom.