1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

The plastics age: How did we get here?

Neil King | Natalie Muller
June 23, 2023

Each year, the world produces 430 million tons of plastics – and that figure is set to triple by 2060. How did plastics become such a big part of our lives? And what needs to be done to limit their environmental impact?


Interviewees featured in this episode:


Susan Freinkel, journalist and author of the book "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story."

  • "I really think plastics is the tangible expression of all that is wrong with capitalism."


Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, director of the Industry and Economy division at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)

  • "The biggest challenge is whether we will be able to have substitutions that don't have a footprint."


Virginia Janssens, Managing Director of the trade federation Plastics Europe

  • "Plastics play a key role in enabling the transition to renewable energy."


The growth and enduring popularity of plastic isn’t surprising. In many ways it’s a miracle substance - lightweight, durable, malleable and cheap. It’s revolutionized sectors such as transport, medicine, agriculture and construction. Modern life is impossible without plastic. But it also comes with problems.

Most plastics are made with fossil fuels. The carbon emissions produced by manufacturing them is on par with the aviation industry. If nothing is done to change that, emissions from the plastics lifecycle are set to more than double by 2060 (reaching 4.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions). The sector will need to decarbonize to meet global targets to prevent runaway climate change. 

And then there’s pollution. The qualities that make plastic so valuable – its durability and strength – also make it a nightmare for the environment. If it ends up in nature, it can take centuries to break down.  

Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled. The rest is incinerated, goes to landfill, or ends up as litter (about 22%). Once in the environment, it often splits up into smaller pieces - microplastics - that have been found just about anywhere scientists have looked for them: in the deepest parts of the ocean, in snow on Mount Everest, inside sea birds, and also in the human body.

The international community is trying to do something about this. The UN is negotiating a global treaty to end plastic pollution - kind of like the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle climate change. The plan is to have a draft deal by November this year. And a final treaty, with binding measures to manage the entire life cycle of plastic, is to be finalized by 2024.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section About the show

About the show

On the Green Fence 210311  Podcast Picture Teaser

On the Green Fence

This award-winning podcast is for those who want more than just the green angle when it comes to the environment and climate change.