Why Can’t We Just Make Less Plastic?

Report: What Happens If We Limit Production of a Global Commodity in High Demand?
A man holding basket and browses for products in the Frozen Goods Section.

It’s a common response to the serious problem of plastic waste in our environment:

“Why can’t we just make less plastic?”

The apparent logic: less plastic produced, less plastic in the environment.

Negotiators on Global Agreement on Plastic Pollution Consider Production Caps

The United Nations (U.N.) has convened world governments to negotiate a global agreement to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. One of the many suggestions: limit plastic production.

So… what would actually happen if we did limit plastic production?

Pint Milk Containers Arranged In Rows

A 2024 report by Oxford Economics found a lot of negative, unintended consequences would result from a cap on plastic production, particularly for those least able to afford it.

Based in London, Oxford Economics bills itself as “the world’s foremost independent economic advisory firm… Covering over 200 countries, over 150 industrial sectors and 8,000 cities and regions.” The International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) asked the firm to:

“explore the expected implications of a production cap on the plastics market.”

Oxford Economics: “The opinions and conclusions in the report have been reached independently by and reflect solely the views of Oxford Economics. They do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of ICCA.”

Among others, Oxford Economics reached two primary findings on the implications of a cap on plastic production:

  • Waste and carbon emissions would increase.
  • The price of plastic would increase.

Production Cap = Increased Environmental Footprint

Reducing the supply of plastic would require switching to alternative materials to meet manufacturing needs. Growing economies/countries would still need to make more cars and medical equipment and wind turbine blades and protective packaging to meet growing demand. They would just need to make them increasingly out of non-plastic alternatives in the face of a stagnant supply of plastic.

Here’s the thing:

Oxford Economics: As the price of [plastic] increases, demand would shift towards alternative products, generating a risk of unintended environmental consequences, including increased GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions and food waste. Part of the current popularity of plastics is that they are relatively light and, therefore, require less energy to manufacture and transport, all else equal.

Moreover, since alternative materials are typically more expensive than plastics, a production cap risks further increases in manufacturers’ production costs.

The young mother holds her daughter on her hip as she grocery shops for items she needs.

The Consequences of Higher Prices Fall on Lower-income Populations

According to the report, since plastic is widely used in goods ranging from airplane windows to surgical equipment to food packaging, limiting supply of an in-demand material would increase its price. And the price of everything made with plastic.

Who would be most negatively affected by the price increases from a production cap on plastic? People in less economically advantaged regions who rely more heavily on the use and benefits of plastic.

Oxford Economics: In regions with low incomes, consumers spend a higher fraction of their spending on plastic products… concentrated on packaging for products that represent essential staples of day-to-day life, most notably food.

Higher consumer prices will impose a disproportionate burden on low-income households. Since low-income regions spend more on plastics as a share of their overall consumption, households in these regions can be expected to suffer disproportionately from higher prices.

In other words:

Production cap on plastic = Increased environmental footprint + Higher prices

“Can’t we just make less plastic?” Maybe. But we’re not going to like the consequences.

A Circular Economy Can Help Keep Plastic Out of Our Environment

The global community relies on durable, modern plastic to live better, more sustainable lives – from clean drinking water to low-carbon energy – as echoed in many of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). That’s why production caps on plastic would be a step backward for sustainability.


Read more on plastic and SDGs

Plus, there is a better way to tackle the serious problem of plastic in the environment.

In addition to supplying the modern materials and products that contribute to sustainability, plastic makers are also making progress in changing the way plastics are made, used and remade, transitioning from a linear system to a more circular system that in the future will prevent waste and help keep these materials in use and out of our environment.

That’s why during U.N. negotiations, plastic makers from across the world are championing a global agreement for a sustainable, circular economy and supporting the global ambition to eliminate plastic pollution by 2040. To get there, we need to accelerate a circular economy in which plastic is sustainably reused or recycled instead of discarded.

Read more on circularity

Plastic in our environment is a serious – but solvable – problem. A well-crafted global agreement can help provide solutions by unlocking industry innovation and global investment in plastic circularity.

Read More on the global agreement