3. Plastics use projections to 2060

Global plastics use is projected to almost triple between 2019 and 2060 in the Baseline scenario, increasing from 460 million tonnes (Mt) to 1 231 Mt yearly (Figure 3.1). In this scenario, continued socioeconomic developments and economic growth, including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic (Chapter 2), see emerging and developing economies catch up with higher income countries.

The projected increase in plastics use is mostly driven by economic growth: more economic activity means more use of plastics, in production and consumption. With global GDP more than tripling between 2019 and 2060, this effect is very strong. While rising income levels lead to a rapid increase in plastics use (to 898 Mt in 2060, shown by the green bar in Figure 3.1), other socio-economic factors also increase the use of plastics. Population growth also leads to an increase in plastics use (light grey bar; +76 Mt). However, its effect is limited because per-capita plastics use is relatively low in the regions with the fastest population growth, most notably Sub-Saharan Africa (see Section 3.2.2). This growth in plastics use will be moderated by changes in the structure of the economy, most notably a shift towards services (purple bar; -66 Mt), and the use of more efficient technologies in production processes (dark grey bar; -136 Mt), which lower the amount of plastics used per dollar of output of plastic-using commodities.

While plastics use is projected to increase in all regions, the regional contribution to global plastics use has changed enormously over the last century and is projected to continue changing to 2060 (Figure 3.2).

In 1980, OECD countries together accounted for 87% of global plastics use, while Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa (“Other Africa”)1 together accounted for 5%; fast-growing emerging economies in Asia (The People’s Republic of China, India and “Other Asia”) accounted for only 1% of global plastics use. In 2019, OECD and non-OECD countries contributed almost equally to global plastics use, with the OECD accounting for 46%. China, India and other fast-growing emerging economies in Asia accounted for 35% of global plastics use (China accounting for 20% and India 6%).

Between 2019 and 2060, non-OECD countries are projected to triple their plastics use and, by 2060, will account for 64% of global plastics use. Non-OECD countries in Asia alone will account for 41% of global plastics use in 2060. China remains the region with the highest share in global plastics use, even though its share slightly declines to 17% as the growth in plastics use in the country is lower than the global average growth in plastics use. Plastics use in India is projected to be more than five times larger in 2060 compared to 2019, with its share in global plastics increasing to 13%. Similarly, plastics use increases substantially in other emerging economies in Asia (Other non-OECD Asia). The largest increase in plastics use takes place in Sub-Saharan Africa, where plastics use is more than six times larger in 2060 compared to 2019. Strong population growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, combined with significant income growth (see Chapter 2), contributes to the projected rapid increase of plastics use in that region.

While their share of global plastics use declines, plastics use is projected to double in OECD countries, as well as in the non-OECD regions not mentioned above, which include Latin American and Eurasian countries. In these regions, moderate growth in income and low population growth, combined with minor structural change, limits the growth of plastics use.

Understanding changes in plastics use by application is key to understanding changes in the demand for the different polymers. The ENV-Linkages model maps plastics use by polymer and application to the model sectors.2 For instance, as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is mostly used for construction applications, it is linked to the construction sector in the model, while PP (polypropylene) is used for packaging, amongst other applications, and is linked to several sectors, including food products and business services. In general, polymers are used for multiple applications, and applications are also linked to multiple economic sectors, unless they are highly specialised, such as in construction.

Together, packaging, construction and vehicles (which include vehicles for all transport sectors as well as other transport equipment, and marine coatings linked to the production and maintenance of ships) currently account for more than 60% of total plastics use (Figure 3.3, Panel A). By 2060, plastics use is projected to increase for all applications, following increases in production levels across the economy (Figure 3.3, Panel B). Plastics use for the production of vehicles increases most, reflecting a rising demand for transport equipment as economies develop (see Section 3.2.3). Increasing digitalisation and electrification also sees plastics use increase for electrical and electronic products.

While the services sectors have a relatively low plastics intensity (the amount of plastic per unit of output), the servitisation of economies will mean that the services sector will account for the largest share of plastics use. This is reflected in the increase of plastic products frequently used in service sectors, such as packaging and consumer products (e.g. takeaway food containers, health care and medical products, art supplies, credit cards and luggage). The increase in plastics use for packaging shows that policies currently in place are not sufficient to offset the increase in plastics use by key sectors that rely on packaging, including business services, food products and trade.

Plastics use also increases for other applications although to a lesser extent. Plastics use for clothes increases, following an increase in output from the textile sector in non-OECD countries (see Section 3.2.3). Plastics use in construction increases especially in developing and emerging economies as construction activities are linked to investment in infrastructure, which is an essential part of economic development (OECD, 2019[1]). Finally, plastics use for industrial applications and machinery (included in “Other”) grows less than other applications thanks to structural shifts away from industry and the continued reliance on steel and other metals by these industries.

Plastics use is also projected to increase for all polymers (Figure 3.4), as inputs for the different applications also increase. The links between the different polymers and applications is quite intricate, as the same polymers can be used in different ways in various applications, and some polymers actually represent a wide range of different plastics that are grouped in one category because they share certain characteristics. By 2060, there is projected to be a substantial increase in the use of polymers for packaging. Notably, low-density polyethylene (LDPE, and including linear low-density polyethylene or LLDPE) used in packaging triples compared to 2019; while polypropylene (PP), high density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), all used in packaging, more than double. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is used in construction, increases by 2.6 times. Likewise, fibres, which are used for textiles, are projected to triple. The use of polymers for the production of vehicles, and especially PP, is also projected to increase substantially.

The ENV-Linkages model splits plastics production and use into primary plastics and secondary plastics (plastics made from recycled materials). Primary plastics include both fossil-based and biobased plastics, which are a rather small group of plastics with similar characteristics to fossil-based plastics, but are derived from biomass such as corn, sugarcane, wheat or residues from other processes. The estimates for secondary plastics are based on available data on plastics labelled for recycling (i.e. that have labels indicating that they can be recycled). They also take into account losses in the process, such as when plastics are collected for recycling, but cannot be recycled.3

In the Baseline scenario, the growth in global output of primary and secondary plastics production is similar, with secondary plastics production growing slightly faster than primary. The share of secondary plastics, a key indicator of circularity, is projected to double from 6% to 12% between 2019 and 2060 (Figure 3.5). Secondary plastics use can be boosted in two ways. First, increases in recycling can boost the availability of scrap material for use in secondary plastics production. This supply push effect will be explored in Chapter 4. Second, on the demand side, there is a pull effect from increased demand for plastics as well as increased production costs for primary plastics. The Baseline scenario assumes no new policies are introduced to incentivize a shift away from primary plastics, and thus this lever is not very strong. Nonetheless, the share of secondary plastics increases even in the absence of stronger policies, as more scrap becomes available keeping production costs for secondary plastics relatively low so that secondary production can compete better with primary production. The increase is, however, not nearly enough to overcome the strong increase in total plastics demand, leading to a significant increase in primary plastics production.

Due to the increasing use of plastics, biobased plastics production is also projected to increase in the Baseline scenario, but at a slower rate than total plastics production, and its share remains marginal (at around 0.5% in 2060). The environmental consequences of the growth in bioplastics use are not straightforward to calculate. While the production of biobased plastics is less carbon-intensive than fossil-based plastics, the production of biobased plastics relies on crops, which need extensive land. An increase in demand for biobased plastics could increase the area of cropland needed, potentially driving forest conversion and consequent emission increases (see Chapter 6).

Since fossil fuels are still the main source of plastics, the roles of the energy mix and fossil prices in the Baseline scenario are relevant. The Baseline projections are based on the energy mix outlined in the current policies (“CPS”) scenario of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook (IEA, 2018[2]). In the ENV-Linkages Baseline scenario, the price of oil is projected to more than double between 2019 and 2060. However, plastics use projections would only change slightly in a scenario with higher or lower oil price profile, partly due to the changes in production prices, but also due to changes in consumption (Box 3.1).

Besides the substitution across different types of plastics, plastics can also be replaced by other materials, depending on the sector and product. For instance, paper and wood are increasingly used for single-use products such as plastic plates, or to turn single-use products in reusable products, as done for instance for reusable water bottles made of metal, which replace single-use plastic ones. However, alternatives to plastics are do not easily available for all product yet. For instance, it will be more difficult to find substitutes for plastics in the production of electronics, where the only current option is to make plastics based on algae. Unfortunately, there is not enough information or data available to create projections to 2060 for these types of alternatives. However, the ENV-Linkages modelling framework takes into account how various materials grow in response to changes in product prices and demand. In the Baseline scenario, plastics use is projected to grow faster than most other materials (Box 3.2), highlighting the fact that the economy is increasingly relying on plastics.

The effects of the four socio-economic drivers of plastics (presented in Figure 3.1) vary by region (Figure 3.8), depending on the characteristics of their economies and the projected regional socio-economic developments (Chapter 2). The large differences in the drivers of plastics use across regions highlight the need to tailor policy action to reduce the environmental impacts of plastics to the specific characteristics of the regional economies.

Economic growth is the main driver of plastics use and leads to an increase in plastics use in all regions. The same does not apply to population growth. In most regions, population growth reflects only a minor share of the total increase in plastics use. This effect is large in Sub-Saharan Africa (Other Africa), which is the region with fastest population growth (see Section 3.2.2). However, in regions with declining populations, which include many Eastern European countries (part of Other EU), Japan, Korea (both part of OECD Asia), and China, demographic changes limit the growth in plastics use.

The effects of structural change also vary by region. In most regions, structural change helps to limit the growth in plastics use. Plastics are used widely in agriculture, industry and services (although the polymers differ). In contrast to the impact on climate change and air pollution, a trend towards servitisation does not automatically imply that plastics use is reduced. Rather, it depends on the specific economic structure of the economy (see Section 3.2.3). Structural change has the strongest effect in China, where the economy is undergoing a process of servitisation and moving towards less material-intensive sectors. In some regions, notably OECD Non-EU countries (which include Turkey and Norway, among other countries), Other EU (which includes some Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania), Eurasia (which includes the Russian Federation) and Sub-Saharan Africa, structural change can drive an increase in plastics use. In these regions, economic development leads to an increase in sectors that rely on plastics inputs, thus leading to an increase in plastics use. While the effect of technology changes limits the increase in plastics use in all regions, this effect is largest in the regions for which structural changes drive plastics use. Therefore, in these regions, economic development leads to the adoption of improved technologies that decrease plastic intensity, but also to an increase in production in more plastic-intensive sectors.

The effects of population growth on plastics use reflect the projected changes in population from 2019 to 2060 (Figure 3.9). Among all regions, Sub-Saharan Africa (Other Africa) stands out as the region in which population growth drives plastics use the most. Indeed, this is the region with the strongest increase in population (Chapter 2). In the other regions, the growth in plastics use is much stronger than the growth in population, leading to a significant increase in plastics use per capita.

Despite economic growth, the strong increase in population growth in Sub-Saharan Africa also implies that, by 2060 this region will still have the lowest levels of plastics use per person (Figure 3.10). On average, plastics use per capita in OECD countries is projected to remain higher than in non-OECD countries. While non-OECD countries are projected to see their plastics use per capita more than Between 2019 and 2060, non-OECD countriesdouble between 2019 and 2060, their projected 2060 levels remain lower than 2019 OECD levels. Thus, there is only very limited convergence in plastics use per capita between OECD and non-OECD countries.

Despite the growth in plastics use, the global plastics intensity -– i.e. the amount of plastics use needed to produce a dollar of GDP –- is projected to fall by 16% between 2019 and 2060.This effect is the result of changes in regional and sectoral production levels as well as increased efficiency in production. The plastic intensity of regional economies depends on changes in the structure of the economy, which determines whether output grows in more or less plastic-intensive sectors; and on changes in production technologies, which influence the plastic intensity of each sector.

Projected changes in technologies imply that plastic intensity decreases in most sectors by 2060 in both OECD and non-OECD countries (Figure 3.11). There are a few exceptions, such as food products in OECD countries, which rely on plastics for packaging, as well as construction in OECD countries, where plastics are increasingly used. Plastic intensity also increases or remains unchanged in some industrial sectors in non-OECD countries (e.g. Other manufacturing). This largely reflects a shift within the sector towards specific commodities that use more plastics, rather than a decline in production efficiency.

Structural change in both OECD and non-OECD countries implies a stronger reliance on services sectors (Figure 3.11). These include government service sectors with very low plastic intensity, such as education and healthcare (Other services), but also services which rely on plastics even limitedly. This is the case for business services, a category which includes trade services that rely heavily on packaging. While business services have relatively low plastic intensity, servitisation implies a large output growth, especially in non-OECD countries (+300%). This effect partly drives the increase in packaging plastics outlined in Section 3.1.3.

Rising living standards and industrialisation in non-OECD countries, and most notably Sub-Saharan African countries, will drive a strong increase in the intensity of plastics use, as consumption leads to strong demand for plastics for construction and (semi-)durables (such as cars or appliances). This effect is particularly evident for transport: as economies grow, they also rely more heavily on transport services and on the use of motor vehicles (Box 3.3). The production of motor vehicles is plastic intensive, especially in non-OECD countries. Hence, the increase in in the share of this sector in the economy also leads to an increase in economy-wide plastic intensity.

Plastic intensity is projected to decline in the textile sector, which relies on the use of fibres.4 However, while the sector is projected to grow less than the economy average in OECD countries, it is projected to have a large growth in non-OECD countries, thereby also driving the increased use of fibres for used in the production of clothes at the global level.

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated response measures have affected short-run sectoral output, with a large decrease in economic activity in 2020 and a projected gradual recovery in the coming years (see Chapter 2). The short-term consequences for plastics use are mixed. Some plastics have been used more for specific applications, most notably masks and other personal protective equipment. In response to a shift from in-store shopping to online retail and from restaurant eating to take-away, there has also been a decline in production activities that use plastics, such as construction and motor vehicles manufacturing. On balance, the effect is negative, but relatively small: in 2020 global plastics use is estimated to have declined by around 10 Mt below 2019 levels (see Chapter 3 in OECD (2022[6]). The economic impacts of the pandemic also have longer-term consequences, as economic growth is projected to recover only gradually and economic activity levels remain permanently below the pre-COVID projection (see Boxes 2.2 and 2.4 in Chapter 2).5

The medium and long-term implications of the pandemic remain highly uncertain. First, the recovery of the economic and health systems remains fragile at the time of writing, despite increasing vaccination rates in many countries. Second, it is uncertain how government recovery packages are being and will be spent and how this affects plastics use. Third, the behavioural changes induced by the lockdowns, not least the shift to online retail, may either gradually phase out or accelerate over time.

Nonetheless, based on Dellink et al. (2021[7]), which assumes that government recovery packages are not explicitly steered towards recycling or secondary plastics, and that behavioural changes are temporary (in which case demand gradually reverts back to the pre-COVID projection), the modelling captures the effect on future plastics use of changes in economic activity at regional and sectoral level. Based on these assumptions, the Baseline scenario suggests that global plastics use remains below the pre-COVID projection in the coming years (Figure 3.12). By 2025, the immediate effects of the early lockdown measures are assumed to have disappeared but the economic impacts are still harshly felt. Thus, plastics use is projected to have recovered to well above 2019 levels, but despite economic growth rates returning to pre-COVID projection rates, use levels remain around 3% below the pre-COVID projection on balance. However, in absolute terms, these effects are small. By 2060, the Baseline scenario projects global plastics use in 2060 to be 1 231 Mt, compared to 1 253 Mt had the pandemic not taken place, a difference of less than 2%. Use trajectories will however strongly depend on the actual speed of the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic (Box 3.4).

The regional differences in the effect of the pandemic on plastics use are driven by changes in local economic activities. In some countries – not least China and the USA – the recovery from COVID-19 is forecast to be rapid (OECD, 2021[8]), and plastics use by 2025 is quite close to the pre-COVID projection. In other regions, most notably India, the negative economic effects of the pandemic are projected still be widespread in 2025, leading to plastics use levels that may be 10% below what they would have been without the pandemic. By 2060, growth rates of plastics use are projected to have recovered in all regions, and levels are at most a few percent below the pre-COVID projection.


[4] Dargay, J. and D. Gately (1999), “Income’s effect on car and vehicle ownership, worldwide: 1960–2015”, Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, Vol. 33/2, pp. 101-138, https://doi.org/10.1016/s0965-8564(98)00026-3.

[5] Dargay, J., J. Madre and A. Berri (2000), “Car Ownership Dynamics Seen Through the Follow-Up of Cohorts: Comparison of France and the United Kingdom”, Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, Vol. 1733/1, pp. 31-38, https://doi.org/10.3141/1733-05.

[7] Dellink, R. et al. (2021), “The long-term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic and recovery measures on environmental pressures: A quantitative exploration”, OECD Environment Working Papers, No. 176, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/123dfd4f-en.

[2] IEA (2018), World Energy Outlook 2018, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/weo-2018-en.

[6] OECD (2022), Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/de747aef-en.

[8] OECD (2021), OECD Economic Outlook, Volume 2021 Issue 1, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/edfbca02-en.

[1] OECD (2019), Global Material Resources Outlook to 2060: Economic Drivers and Environmental Consequences, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264307452-en.

[3] Plastics Europe (2005), Eco-profiles of the European Plastics Industry: Polyethylene Theraphlate (PET) (Bottle grade),, http://www.inference.org.uk/sustainable/LCA/elcd/external_docs/petb_31116f00-fabd-11da-974d-0800200c9a66.pdf.


← 1. Table A A.2 in Annex A explains the regional groupings used in ENV-Linkages.

← 2. Table A A.4 in Annex A summarises the mapping of the economic sectors and plastics applications.

← 3. Plastics use and production for 2019 were estimated by calculating the amount of plastics labelled for recycling, minus the plastics lost in the recycling process (during both sorting and conversion). Information on plastics losses was supplied by Leeds University. The evolution of secondary plastics in the Baseline scenario was then carefully calibrated to have a match between available plastic waste labelled for recycling (minus losses) and secondary production by region to 2060. See Annex A for details on the methodology and (OECD, 2022[6]) for an overview of base year plastics use.

← 4. This sector is slightly more plastic intensive in OECD countries than non-OECD countries. This is a result of the model assumptions that link use of fibres in textiles to the input of chemicals (the sector that creates the fibres). As the model cannot further differentiate between different chemical products, the fibre input is proportional to the input of chemicals in the textile sector.

← 5. Furthermore, the short-term reductions in plastics use will only result in changes in waste streams at the end of products timespan; thus reduced plastics use in 2020 will reduce projected plastic waste streams.

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