Monday 12 February 2024

Total carbon footprint (TCF) of consumers: what role do plastics play?

Hello and welcome to this new blog post. Today we investigate the question of what impact plastic products have on our total carbon footprint. When one is confronted with the question of "do i use too much plastic products and harm the environment?", the short answer is no and here is why: 

Let us start with the following question: 

How much plastic do we use?

The answer was well researched by independent scientist Dr. Chris DeArmitt and he presented literature which shows that plastics (mainly PE, PP, PVC, and PET) only account for 1% by volume (0.4% by weight) of society’s material use. Ceramics (mainly concrete) represent 84%, natural materials like wood 9%, and metals 6%. Global plastics consumption is around 370 million metric tons per year, however this is still small compared  to the 90 billion metric tons of overall materials used [1]. In order to put things better into perspective, we can compare the overall amount of materials used to a watermelon and compare it to a blueberry, representing the yearly plastics consumption (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Watermelon vs blueberry - comparing the overall material consumption to the plastics consumption (on a yearly basis) [1].

How much do plastic products contribute to my total carbon footprint?

The short answer is: not much - only 1.3 % according to the study conducted by Carbon Trust in 2009 [3].  The 1.3% are 13,7 tons CO2-equivalents per capita. Recreation and leisure activities represent 18% of the total consumer carbon footprint, followed by space heating with 14%. Figure 2 shows the complete overview of the total consumer carbon footprint.

Figure 2: The role of  plastic products in the total carbon footprint of consumers [3].


Combining the answers of the two aforementioned questions, we can conclude that focusing on replacing plastics, which only represent 1% by volume of all materials, is not the best way forward to protect our environment. Concrete and ceramics represent 80% of the materials and they are the biggest pile which we need to attack first. Also, improving space heating systems with modern heat pump systems can reduce the personal carbon footprint much more than trying to not use a plastic bag for shopping. Allover, plastics are part of the solution to protect the environment and not the problem. 

I wrote another post on how plastics protect our climate and environment by using them as insulating materials - here you can read the whole post. 

Thanks for reading and #findoutaboutplastics


Herwig Juster 

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[1] Materials and the Environment: Eco-informed Material Choice 1st Edition



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