The Link Between Plastic and Petroleum

Governments around the world are challenging and restricting the use of plastic, and in particular, single-use plastic, in order to derive environmental benefits, achieve challenging carbon reduction targets, and improve the health of humans and our natural environment. The Government of Canada has recently passed a new regulation that entirely prohibits the manufacture or import for sale of single-use plastic for retail or food service use [1]. With continuing pressure to reduce the use of plastics, one may wonder what impact this will have on global oil sales.


Petroleum and Plastic – The Link


Plastic is made from petrochemicals, with the hydrocarbons ethylene, styrene, and propylene being taken out of oil to access the hydrogen and carbon that is necessary to manufacture plastic [2]. Between 8% to 10% of the world’s total oil supply [3] is used annually for making plastic products. In the US alone, this is the equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil annually, or to look at it another way, it takes 250g of oil to make a single 1L plastic bottle [4].

The Problem

Plastic has a significant environmental impact, producing CO2 at every step of its lifecycle, including at disposal [5]. Plastic has been historically mismanaged, with about 36% of all plastic produced being single-use and thus disposed of after just one use, often incorrectly, creating plastic pollution.

If plastic and microplastic continue to be released into our oceans at the current rate, it is projected that by 2050 and based on its weight, there will be more plastic than fish in our seas.

Plastic pollution ranges from discarded plastic bags and bottles, which litter streets and oceans, destroying natural habitats and killing wildlife, to the staggering impact of incinerating unwanted plastics, which releases harmful toxins into the atmosphere that can damage the neurodevelopment, reproductive and endocrine systems of humans in the vicinity [6].

Plastics are also a major contributor to global warming. In 2019, a report identified that they were responsible for 3.4% of the world’s total carbon emissions, and 90% of these emissions resulted from the production and conversion of fossil fuels like petroleum in their manufacturing process [7].

The Solution

Single-use plastic is widely recognized as a barrier to achieving carbon reduction strategies globally, so industries involved in its manufacture, use, and disposal, including the petroleum industry must work together to identify alternatives that would define ways to reduce its use. The aim of finding alternatives also includes ensuring that where it is the most appropriate product to satisfy specific requirements, it is either multi-use or fully recyclable to reduce its environmental impact.


The petroleum industry is likely to come under increasing scrutiny for its role in the production of plastics over the coming years. Hence, the industry must make plans for reducing the impact of global CO2 emissions whilst also bearing in mind the financial impact of moving away from supplying oil for plastic production. Combined with the increased uptake of electric vehicles, it is likely that the industry will need to employ creative and innovative solutions for maintaining cash flow in the face of adversity.