Plastic bags and plastic bottles - CO2 emissions during their lifetime

A number of people have asked about the implications of using plastic bags on the personal carbon footprint as well as on the environment in general. There are some comparisons between paper bags and plastic bags available which clearly show that it all depends on how many times these plastic or paper bags are being used. 

Littering is probably the severest problem related to plastic bags. Nevertheless let's now have a look at the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for the production and incineration of plastic bags.

The carbon footprint of plastic (LDPE or PET, poyethylene) is about 6 kg CO2 per kg of plastic. If you know the weight of your plastic bags, you can multiply it with the number of plastic bag you are using per year. Then you can easily calculate the carbon dioxide emitted by your own usage of plastic bags. See below for some background information.

  • The production of 1 kg of polyethylene (PET or LDPE), requires the equivalent of 2 kg of oil for energy and raw material (see here). Polyethylene PE ist the most commonly used plastic for plastic bags.
  • Burning 1 kg of oil creates about 3 kg of carbon dioxide (see e.g. our offline carbon footprint calculator). In other words: Per kg of plastic, about 6 kg carbon dioxide is created during production and incineration.
  • A plastic bag has a weight in the range of about 8 g to 60 g depending on size and thickness. For the further calculation, it now depends on which weight for a plastic bag you actually use. A common plastic carrying bag in our household had a weight between 25 g and 40 g. So I took the average of 32.5 g.
  • Take the above relation between kg plastics and kg of carbon dioxide, and you get about 200 g carbon dioxide for 32.5 g of plastic, which is the equivalent of the average plastic carrying bag in our household. Or in other words: For 5 plastic bags you get 1 kg of CO2.

Of course you'll find different figures on the Internet. The main factors are the weight of the plastic bag and whether the grey energy (energy used for production and disposal) is taken into account.



Recycling of plastic and figures about plastic

Some interesting facts around plastics:

  • The world-wide production of plastic is currently at 35 kilogramm per year per person. On average, it is increasing by 3% per year.
  • Most of the plastic is used for packaging (35%), followed by the construction sector and vehicle construction.
  • About 40% of the produced plastic is being disposed within 1 year (primarily packaging material).
  • The average lifetime of plastic is 12 years. The main reason is the relatively long lifetime in the construction sector.
  • Recycling of plastic saves on average about 2.5 kg CO2 per kg of plastic. Thus recycled plastic produces about 3.5 kg CO2 compared to 6 kg of CO2 for new plastic (production and incineration).
  • About 6% of the world-wide oil consumption is used for the production of plastic (with increasing tendency).

Source: Pusch, Thema Umwelt, 1/2009, p. 3


Very enlightening indeed, thank you :)


How does this compare to HDPE, if at all?


It doesn't.

Plastics bags and CO2 Revised figures

It is important to understand that the base for any calculation is verified. The risk is otherwise that final fugures will have a spread which is total unrealistic. In the production of typical plastic HDPE carrier bags you will get 100.000 bags from 1 MT of material, thus the weight is likely to be around 10 g/bag. Using your value of 6kg CO2/kg plastics 1 kg CO2 then will correspond to approx 16 carrier bags in HDPE. This is a very realistic figure. If you may recycle the bags and use that material at least in a 50/50 mix recycled material and virgin material the CO2 figure would of course be improved a lot as well. In Europe this is now getting more and more common in addition to that you have to pay a so called green fee for the bags in the shops. In Scandinavia and Finland this has been going on for a long time keeping the bag consumption on a very steady level. You could do the same in US providing that you organise your system for collection. Greetings from "The Nordic Light"

It's sad when people steal content.

Wow. You guys have the same web content as this site.

It's sad when people steal content.

Plastic bags CO2 emissions / content copy

Ours is the original content. I have no problem if someone else is using our content, however a link back is considered as normal behaviour. Maybe they just forgot to do that without bad intention...


It's sad when people steal content

To steal ideas from one person is plagarism. To steal from many is research. And even this I copied from some wise man!


Apparently no longer..... Page not found. Although personally, think spreading the 'green' word should be rather considered a favour, not so much a crime.

Plastic Bottles Are Good For The Environment (what??)

Just a little note to let you know that you have been mentioned in this article on bottled water

Keep up the good work !!

Plastic Bag vs Paper Bag

Interesting to see a comparison of CO2 emissions between a plastic & paper bag production. My guess is that a paper bag production is far more carbon intensive - even using recycled paper.


Your statistics are very useful but where did you get this information from?

Please read article about plastic and CO2

Please read the original article on the top of this page about plastic bags and CO2 emissions and you will find it


Incineration vs. Landfill

Isn't it more useful to estimate the life cycle as production to landfill of a plastic bag vs. production to incineration? Or maybe I'm the only American reading this. ;)

Plastics are byproducts!

Just a reminder that plastic production comes from the feedstock of processing crude oil. Plastics come from the "waste" of producing gasoline. We need to use less gasoline to produce less plastic. For every bag that gets recycled, there are 5 brand new plastic bags being produced. REDUCE REDUCE REDUCE. Don't forget your reusable bag. :)


Very interesting, but what about the transportation of plastic bags from Malaysia and China.

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conversion help

could someone please convert for me the estimated atmospheric carbon from 48 million plastic bottles? This is average for bottles thrown out every day in the US.

Laura in central US

So can I say that

So can I say that non-biodegradable plastics emit CO2 as well? Just clarifying.

New work

Nice Work

6 kg CO2 per kg of plastic

Does this apply to PET empty plastic water bottles? And is the 6 kg of CO2 produced kg/cubic meters? Or kg/cubic feet?

6 kg CO2

Is this 6 kg/cubic meter of CO2 or 6 kg/cubic foot of CO2?