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Oil Consumption



The above questions are being asked of European and National Plastics Associations more and more frequently by: customers; the media; governments; and the public. This is particularly the case at present with high oil prices, publicity on reserves and high polymer prices.

Many associations have answers to these questions and the purpose of this draft brief is to draw in the arguments we are using and agree a common brief which we can use across Europe with a common message.

How Much Oil is Left?

Global demand has risen from 82.5m barrels per day in 2004 to an estimated 87.2m barrels in 2008.  Supply has kept pace rising from 83.4m to 87.3m.  Demand in emerging economies is up 5.2m barrels per day of which China accounts for 1.5m.

BP’s Statistical Review of the oil market published in June 2008 states that the proven world oil reserves are 1.24 trillion barrels which on current production is sufficient for 41 years. Some say 2.4 trillion (80 years) is more accurate.


  • Canada holds estimated reserves of 179 billion barrels of oil, the majority from oil sands putting it second only to Saudi Arabia.  Currently Canada’s oil sands produce just over a million barrels a day but this is set to triple by 2020.  With Venezuela’s oil sands this will provide enough oil for 200 years.
  • There has been no accurate estimate of Saudi reserves since the 1960’s and large areas have not been fully explored.
  • Iraq has massive reserves and is producing only two thirds of what it did on the eve of the first Gulf War in 1990
  • Iran also has huge reserves, much unexploited due to political tensions
  • Nigeria’s production is reduced for the same reasons
  • Experts believe there is a further 25bn barrels of recoverable crude in the North Sea and along the coasts but plans only exist to recover less than half in the long term.

“How Will Plastics be Affected by Dwindling Oil Reserves?”

To make plastics we need hydrogen and carbon which are freely available in the atmosphere. Today the most convenient way of accessing them is by taking them out of oil, to provide the hydrocarbons ethylene, propylene, styrene etc.

But hydrocarbons can also be made from methane, coal and biomass (e.g. bio-ethanol).

Other possible raw materials for plastics are: starch; cellulose; sugars; lactic acid; organic waste; vegetable oils; micro-organisms – even the atmosphere itself!

The Plastics Industry was flourishing well before oil was used as the feedstock.  Currently fossil fuels represent 99% of the plastics raw material base but there is a growing interest in the use of biomass as a feedstock.

The Futurologist Ray Hammond in his book “The World in 2030” predicts that oil in the future will not be burnt away and wasted in energy and transport but reserved for “high value processes and products such as plastics manufacturing…… and energy trapped within the plastics can either be recycled or recovered and used for heat generation.”

“How Much Oil is Needed for Plastics?”

Only 4% of global oil production is used for plastics.  87% is used for transport, energy and heating and simply burnt and lost.

Oil use - 87% is incinerated!
how much oil is needed for plastics
Plastics is the most sustainable use of oil since it “borrows” fossil hydrocarbons and returns them afterwards into the fuel cycle.

plastics sustainable use of oil

Used plastics can be recycled up to six times.  If it doesn’t make economic or environmental sense to recycle, then the energy can be recovered through Energy from Waste incineration.  Used plastics have a higher calorific value than coal and at a time of high energy prices unrecyclable materials can, through EfW provide a much needed local energy supply.

In Europe recovery from used plastics reached 50% in 2006 and is increasing.

In August 2008 a British waste expert predicted that due to high raw material prices UK landfills may be mined for plastics and oceans scoured for the material within a decade.

What Impact do Plastics Have on Climate Change?

Plastics are part of the solution to halting climate change.

Plastics are light

  • Plastics replacing traditional materials in cars saves weight and gives an average cut in fuel consumption of 750 litres per lifespan on 150,000km
  • Thanks to plastics per year fuel consumption of cars is reduced by 12 million tonnes in Europe and CO2 emissions by 30 million tonnes.
  • The new Airbus A380 airliner has 22% carbon fibre plastic composites saving 15% of fuel

Plastics packaging: When more is less

  • On average only 1%-3% of the weight of a packaged product comes from the plastic packaging
  • Glass jars for coffee are 36% of the weight of a product whereas equivalent plastic pouches are only 3.56% of the packaging weight
  • The average weight of plastic packaging has decreased by about 28% in the last 10 years

Renewable energies are only feasible with plastics

  • 40% of all energy consumed world-wide is used in buildings principally for heating and cooling
  • Pipes, solar panels, wind turbine rotors all contain plastics
  • EPS insulation and PVC-U double glazed windows and doors are essential to the energy efficiency of buildings

“Is Substitiution of Plastics an Option?”

No -   In 2005 the GUA consultancy found that 40% of the life cycle energy cost of products is determined by the use phase: plastics are in general more energy efficient in the use phase than alternative materials.

  • Production of plastic products uses far less energy compared to traditional materials
  • Substitution of plastics by second best alternatives gives at 26% increase in energy consumption; and a 56% increase in global warming.


Ref PD/LFH/19/8/08
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