The loophole in COP28’s landmark climate agreement

COP28’s climate deal agrees to ‘transition away’ from using fossil fuels for energy, but that leaves a big opening for plastics


Hey team, and welcome to our post-COP28 edition of one5c. The conference’s conclusion came with a drafted climate deal that centers on “transitioning away from fossil fuels.” It’s the first time the words “fossil fuels” have appeared in COP’s official text. Alas, the nonbinding agreement is missing teeth. The ideas of “phasing out” or even “phasing down” fossil fuels didn’t make the final word count. Plus, another Brontosaurus-sized loophole caught our attention: The deal only applies to fossil fuels in energy systems.

Pretty much all the Big Oil superstars have a second act, and that’s revving up our addiction to plastics. Byproducts of refining fossil fuels can be turned into anything from single-use bags and the microfibers in your favorite sweater to aircraft parts. By 2050, half of global oil demand will be from plastic production. 

We’ve been working on just the thing to prepare y’all for the second coming of fossil fuels. Over the last several months, we’ve been drilling deep into plastic. Meet the first one5c Cheat Sheet: plastics edition

What follows is an excerpt from this collection of 20-plus stories that span the range of the subject, from how plastic is made to the state of recycling to the new technologies being developed to break it down. We wanted to answer any question a regular person would have about plastic, why it matters to people who care about the planet, and what you can do about it.

You’re gonna want to bookmark it, but also share it with someone you know who loves the Earth and hates single-use water bottles. —Sara Kiley Watson


Anan Kaewkhammul/Shutterstock

When we think of oil, the first thought might be of the fuel that propels cars, heats buildings, and powers the grid. But more than 99% of all plastics are made from materials derived from fossil fuels. In the U.S. we make a portion of our plastics out of petroleum, but our plastic fuel of choice is natural gas. Other major producers like China, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Japan, however, make theirs from crude oil. Here are answers to some of the most common questions about this sleeper fossil-fuel problem:

Just how much oil goes into plastics?

Byproducts from 9 million barrels of oil go toward making plastics every single day worldwide. It’s unclear exactly what portion of petroleum from the United States ends up as plastic, but the most recent available data put the number around 191 million barrels a year (around a half-million a day) in 2010. The best estimate for the global average sits around 6% of all oil. That piece of the pie, 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 reserves are shrinking.
More: Explore plastic’s environmental impact

How much oil does it take to produce plastic bags?

There are almost infinite ways to use, and therefore produce, plastic bags—the kinds that hold produce, clothing, garbage, and more. That makes it tricky to track exactly how much oil goes into these products. Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo claimed the U.S. alone uses 12 million barrels of oil to produce plastic bags when he signed New York state’s plastic ban in 2019.
More: How to recycle plastic bags

What about to produce a plastic water bottle?

Every year the U.S. uses about 17 million barrels of oil to produce plastic water bottles, according to a 2007 estimate by the Pacific Institute. 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 finding new life.
More: How to recycle plastic bottles

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 bioplastics are made either fully or partially from resources like the sugars in plants like corn, beets, or potatoes. While we can’t know exactly what will happen when we run out of oil, bioplastics might become a more mainstream option. We’re already seeing a rise in their use: In 2017, 2.06 million metric tons were used worldwide, and that number has since grown to 2.62 million.

However, the “bioplastics” label does not guarantee that an item is completely free from fossil fuels or gentle on the planet. One example is the NaturALL bottle, which includes bioplastic made from wood scraps. This vessel, produced by Nestlé and Danone, includes only 30% bioplastic, leaving 70% derived from fossil fuel. The biobased materials face additional challenges including high costs for production, fragility, vulnerability to heat and water, and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture. Bioplastics also aren’t necessarily biodegradable or compostable, though some can break down in industrial composting facilities.
More: The truth about bioplastics

Can we convert plastic back into oil?

Scientists have found that you can convert plastic back into oil through a method called pyrolysis. In this process, the material is heated to anywhere from 572 to 1,652 degrees Fahrenheit, which breaks it apart 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. However, doing so takes a tremendous amount of heat and energy, making it a challenging—and potentially polluting—solution for the large amount of plastic we use and produce today.
More: How to reduce plastic use

Chelsea Gohd is a science writer focused on climate, Earth science, and astronomy. She’s been a Senior Writer at space.com, and contributed to a range of publications, including Scientific American and Discover.

In the news this week

  • Eighteen young people are suing the EPA for failing to adequately protect kids from the impacts of the climate crisis. Their argument takes a new approach to environmental justice: It claims the agency has been discriminatory by failing to provide equal protection under the law.
  • Ecologist Thomas Crowther, the man who inspired the world to plant trees, says his signature plan has to stop. In a session at COP28, Crowther cast tree planting as “avoidance offsets”—that is, something polluters do to delay making any meaningful progress towards reducing emissions. 
  • The Washington Post has imagined a future city struggling with the onslaught of extreme heat. Their Meltsville brings together actual events and infrastructural meltdowns from a range of the world’s urban cores into one dysfunctional burgh. 
  • Inside Climate News visited the first EV charger funded by 2021’s federal infrastructure law. The power-up point, which sits at a Ohio truckstop, is an important milestone in the expansion of the nation’s network, which the Biden administration aims to boost to a half-million chargers (from about 142,000 right now) by 2030.
  • New regulations in California have laid out a framework for making wastewater drinkable again. The system—often unappealingly referred to as “toilet to tap”—puts reclaimed H2O through a gauntlet of treatments, including reverse osmosis and intense UV sanitizing, before it even enters the usual drinking water treatment protocol.