Research Nugget

Impact of SA’s Plastic Industry on Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Life-Cycle Approach

Plastics are everywhere and part of modern-day living, offering unique properties that make them ideal for a wide range of applications. However, this convenience comes with a significant environmental cost. Previous studies have focused on the environmental impact of plastics at the end of their lifecycle, such as disposal and recycling, while the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the plastic industry have largely gone unexplored.

Research funded by the NRF attempted to address this gap by quantifying the greenhouse gas emissions of the South African plastics industry and its value chain. Using a lifecycle-based approach, the study assessed the carbon footprint of the industry, focusing specifically on greenhouse gas emissions.

The study found that:

  • The South African plastics industry generated 15.8 Mt CO2eq in 2015, accounting for 3% of the country’s total national greenhouse gas emissions. This is lower than the global average of 3.8%.
  • Granulate production was the most significant contributor to the industry’s emissions, and the consumption of fossil fuel-based electricity and the burning of plastic waste also had a notable impact on the industry’s emissions.
  • Resin production stage was the main source of emissions due to the specific nature of ethylene and propylene monomer production in South Africa.
  • Other significant contributors include the impact of coal-based energy and the emissions from informal disposal methods, particularly the burning of plastic waste.
  • The recycling process in 2015 saved approximately 1.4 Mt of greenhouse gas emissions.

The study recommends that these challenges can be addressed by extending the impact assessment to incorporate other impact categories, such as human and ecotoxicity impacts of informal burning of plastic waste. Additionally, several mitigation scenarios should be assessed to reduce the impact of the current fossil-based production process. These include increasing mechanical recycling, integrating biomass as an alternative to conventional petrochemical feedstock, and incorporating renewable energy into the country’s energy mix.

Given that plastic production has increased at an alarming rate of 8.4% annually and is projected to increase up to 1 600 million tonnes per annum by 2050, this study draws attention to the crucial need to explore alternative, sustainable methods of production and disposal to ensure a greener future.

Read the full paper published in the South African Journal of Science  here.