How oil is used to make plastic

Our fossil fuel problem goes way deeper than energy


Plastic and fossil fuels go hand in hand. Yes, that’s because fossil fuels power the trucks, ships, and planes that deliver goods around the world, but the primary link between these two pollution powerhouses is that plastic is literally made from the stuff. 

Those plastics then go on to pollute our environment, creating even more harm as they break down into tinier and tinier pieces over hundreds of years. 

Is plastic made from petroleum? 

When we think of petroleum, the first thought might be of the fuel we use to propel cars, heat buildings, and power the grid. But plastic is also made from this fossil fuel. More than 99% of all plastics are made from materials derived from fossil fuels.1 However there are hundreds of different types of plastic, and not all of them are made the same way. 

The biggest group of plastics are known as synthetic plastics, which are most often made with petroleum in China, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Japan. Petroleum, or crude oil, is made from animal and plant matter that endures heat and pressure underground for millions of years. Though some plastics made in the U.S. are derived from crude oil, most domestic plastic starts off as natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration

The International Energy Agency expects plastics to make up almost half of oil demand by the 2050s.

These fossil fuels go through an extensive refining process that eventually turns them into the chemicals used to make plastic. Natural gas, for instance, undergoes a process called steam cracking on its route to becoming plastic polymers. 

How much oil is used to make plastics?

As of 2019, 9 million barrels of oil go towards making plastics every single day worldwide.2 It is unclear exactly how much petroleum from the United States is used to make plastic, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration doesn’t track total oil-to-plastic usage domestically.  The most-recent available data comes from the International Energy Agency, which put the number around 191 million barrels a year (around a half-million a day) in 2010.3

However, we know that across Europe, the portion of oil that goes towards plastic production averages between to 4% and 6%,4 and the best estimates for worldwide average sits around 6%.5 That portion, though, is on the rise: The International Energy Agency expects plastics to make up almost half of oil demand by the 2050s, despite the fact that the quantity of this finite resource is shrinking.6 

How is plastic made from oil? 

Turning crude oil into the plastic we use in our everyday lives requires a complex process. The thick, black oil is extracted from underground reserves across the world using drills and pumps. The countries with the largest crude oil reserves, as of 2023, include Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. 

Here’s what happens from there:

  1. The oil flows to refineries through pipelines.
  2. At the refinery, the oil is heated up to 600-750 degrees Fahrenheit and distilled. This process, called fractional distillation, breaks the oil into smaller pieces called fractions. Fractions contain hydrocarbons, including gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, bitumen (or asphalt), lubricating oil, residual fuel oil, and naphtha—the chemical that goes on to become plastic.
  3. Naphtha is composed of many different hydrocarbons. Two of those compounds, ethane and propene, are the critical components of synthetic plastics. A process called steam cracking breaks the naphtha down into those components. 
  4. The next step in the process is called polymerisation, in which simple molecules like ethylene and propylene are chemically bonded into chains. These new, long molecular chains are called polymers. Plastic is essentially a long chain of polymer molecules. Ethylene and propylene, for instance, form polyethylene and polypropylene.
  5. From here, different blends of materials can be combined, melted, and blended to create different types of plastic. The most common types of plastic, which include the ubiquitous PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE ( high-density polyethylene), correspond to the numbers you encounter on plastics of all kinds. 

How do plastics affect oil demand?

Plastic production and oil demand are inexorably intertwined. For example, during the 1973 U.S. oil crisis—when an embargo set out by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) made oil in the U.S. both scarce and expensive—plastic production slowed down with the sudden lack of raw materials. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that plastics will make up nearly 50% of oil demand by the 2050s.7 This is much higher than the current demand, and the global supply of crude oil may only meet our demands through mid-century.8

How much oil does it take to produce plastic bags?

There are almost infinite ways to use, and therefore produce, plastic bags—the kind of baggies that hold produce, clothing, garbage, and more. That makes it tricky to track exactly how much oil goes into these unique products. Every year the U.S. alone uses about 12 million barrels of oil to produce plastic bags, then-governor Andrew Cuomo said in 2019 when he signed New York ban. Around 4,200,000 tons of plastic bags, sacks, and wraps were generated in 2018, according to the EPA.9 Plastic bags are notoriously difficult to recycle

What about how much oil to produce a plastic water bottle?

Every year the U.S. alone uses about 17 million barrels of oil to produce plastic water bottles, according to a 2007 estimate by the Pacific Institute.10 Across the country, though plastic water bottles are most-often made from some of the most readily recyclable types of plastic, the EPA estimates that less than 30% end up recycled.11 

Can you create plastic without oil?

Plastic can, in fact, be made without fossil fuels. Around 1% of plastic falls under the category of “biobased.” These so-called bioplastics are made either fully or partially from resources like the sugars in plants like corn, beets, or potatoes. The sugar from these plants is extracted, dissolved, and combined with other materials to make plastics. For example, corn gets submerged in sulfur dioxide and hot water, which breaks the plant down into its individual components. The resulting materials combine with citric acids and bind together, creating a polymer. 

The countries with the largest crude oil reserves, as of 2023, include Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. 

However, the “bioplastics” label does not guarantee that a plastic item is completely free from fossil fuels. One example is the NaturALL bottle, a plastic bottle made using wood scraps that comes from Nestlé and Danone, two top producers of plastic water bottles. This bottle only includes 30% bioplastic material, leaving 70% derived from fossil fuel. Claims like this demonstrate how the bioplastic industry is especially at risk of greenwashing. 

Synthetic plastics can take more than 400 years to degrade,12 but bioplastics are not much better. The materials on their own aren’t necessarily biodegradable or compostable. Some bioplastics are made specifically to decompose—namely certain starch-based materials.13 However this is typically only possible at industrial composting facilities, which break the material down either through composting or fermentation.

How will we make plastic when we run out of oil?

Fossil fuels are a finite resource, so one day we won’t be able to make plastics or power our world with them. Currently, the global supply of crude oil is only expected to last through 2050. While we can’t know exactly what might happen when we finally run out, bioplastics might become a more mainstream option, according to the British Plastics Federation. And we’re already seeing a rise in bioplastic use. In 2017, 2.06 million tonnes of bioplastics were used worldwide and that grew to 2.62 by 2023, according to European Bioplastics

There are other challenges to these alternative materials. For example, there are fossil fuels used in agriculture that create the raw biological materials. Bioplastics also face additional challenges including high costs for production, fragility, and vulnerability to heat and water.14 

Recycling the synthetic plastic material we have already made is another option. Still, about 91% of plastic ever made has not been recycled and instead sits in landfills or as litter in the environment.15 

Can we produce plastic from vegetable oil?

Technically, yes, we can make plastic from veggie oil. In fact, some research has found that vegetable oil is particularly good for making polyurethane.16 However, in addition to the issue of scalability from the few, small studies that have been done, there are also environmental concerns with vegetable oil production: Cultivating palm and seed oils can lead to deforestation, water and soil pollution, and emit greenhouse gasses.  

Can we convert plastic back into oil?

Scientists have found that you can convert plastic back into oil through a process called pyrolysis. In this process, the plastic material is heated to anywhere from 572 to 1652 degrees Fahrenheit, which breaks apart the plastic into its simplest compounds, resulting in oil. 

Some research suggests that the oil produced from plastic that has undergone pyrolysis could be used as an alternative fuel.17 However, this process takes a tremendous amount of heat and energy, making it a challenging—and potentially polluting—solution for the large amount of plastic used and produced today. 

It is possible, though, that plastic-derived-oil could improve recycling prospects. Chemical giant Dow alongside Mura Technology have invested in converting plastic waste into liquid hydrocarbons that can be converted back into new, recycled plastics. 

  1. Fueling Plastics: Fossils, Plastics,& Petrochemical Feedstocks, Center for International Environmental Law, Sept. 2017 ↩︎
  2. Oil demand for plastics production worldwide in 2019, 2050, and 2060, Statista, Mar. 2023. ↩︎
  3. How much oil is used to make plastic?, Energy Information Administration, Mar. 2013. ↩︎
  4. Plastics–the facts 2017, Plastics Europe, Jan. 2018. ↩︎
  5. The new plastics economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, World Economic Forum, Jan. 2016. ↩︎
  6. The Future of Petrochemicals, International Energy Agency, Oct. 2018. ↩︎
  7. Ibid. ↩︎
  8. International Energy Outlook 2023, Energy Information Administration, Oct. 2023. ↩︎
  9. Advancing sustainable materials management: Facts and figures report, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Nov. 2020 ↩︎
  10. Bottled water and energy: Getting to 17 million barrels, The Pacific Institute, Dec. 2007. ↩︎
  11. Advancing sustainable materials management: Facts and figures report, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Nov. 2020. ↩︎
  12. Degradation rates of plastics in the environment, Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, Feb. 2020 ↩︎
  13. Bioplastics for a circular economy, Nature Reviews, Jan 2022. ↩︎
  14. Advantages and disadvantages of bioplastics production from starch and lignocellulosic components, Polymers (Basel), Jul. 2021. ↩︎
  15. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, Science Advances, Jul. 2017. ↩︎
  16. The vegetable oil in the production of polymers and plastics; an effort of creating green products, IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, Aug. 2019. ↩︎
  17. Utilizing waste plastic bottle-based pyrolysis oil as an alternative fuel, ACS Omega, Jun. 2022. ↩︎