In our Barbie World, plastic is not fantastic

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling attend the European premiere of 'Barbie' in London, Britain July 12, 2023

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling attend the European premiere of "Barbie" in London, Britain July 12, 2023. REUTERS/Maja Smiejkowska

As cinemagoers flock to see Margot Robbie in the Barbie movie, we need to think about plastic’s growing impact on climate change

Noah J. Gordon is acting co-director of the Sustainability, Climate, and Geopolitics Program and a fellow in the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

A Barbie doll is made of plastic, which really means she is made of gas and oil.

To produce a plastic, like the polypropylene that makes up a Barbie’s legs, you distill crude oil into hydrocarbons. Then you use temperature and pressure to “crack” those petroleum products so that you can combine them into polymers, which can be shaped into plastic legs—“tall”, “curvy”, or “petite”, depending on the model of Barbie.

So in a time of climate crisis, the extraction of fossil fuels is directly connected to the useful plastics all around us, from dolls to lightweight car materials and surgical gloves.

Plastic is responsible for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and that number is rising: the United Nations Environment Programme has found that if plastic production continues to grow at its current rate, the plastic industry may account for 20% of the world's oil production in 2050. That makes plastic the biggest driver of growth in oil demand, and a lifeline for oil producers in a world where more and more vehicles are going electric.

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Most emissions occur during the energy-intensive production process, as fossil fuels are burned or gas leaks into the atmosphere. Others occur when plastic degrades or is burned. Of the 7 billion tons of plastic waste we humans have produced so far, less than 10% has been recycled.

This is a problem not just for the climate but for the environment. While a Barbie doll may bring a child joy for years, much plastic is useful for just hours or minutes.

Cigarette butts, food wrappers, water bottles—these products often end up in our streets or oceans. Scientists have found harmful microplastics everywhere from the depths of the Mariana Trench to the peak of Mount Everest, and even in human placenta. The oceans, marred by blobs of waste like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, are particularly at risk: by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans.

To address these climate and environmental problems, U.N. negotiators are working on a treaty to reduce plastic waste. At a June gathering in Paris, representatives of over 170 nations agreed to develop a first draft by November 2023 of a globally binding treaty to take effect in 2024. The talks were hosted by the U.N. Environment Programme, whose goal is to reduce plastic waste by 80% by 2040 by promoting reuse, recycling, and shifts to alternative materials like paper.

In some ways, plastic diplomacy looks a lot like climate diplomacy. Wealthy nations have produced the most harmful pollution, whether plastic or GHG emissions, but citizens of poorer nations often suffer the worst consequences. They are often more reliant on local fishing economies or live in places with ineffective recycling and waste collection systems.

In 2020, over 180 U.N. members agreed to restrict the export of unmixed, contaminated plastic waste without the consent of importing countries. This was meant to stop, for example, the United States exporting plastic waste to countries like Malaysia or Kenya—China took much of the United States’ plastic waste until it banned its import in 2017. But the United States is not a party to the Basel Convention that contains the plastic regulations, and other high-income countries continue to illicitly export plastic trash that ends up on beaches or landfills in Africa and Asia.

Just as with previous climate treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, there is a divide between those who support a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach.

The High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution—which includes the EU, Japan, and many small island nations—is pushing for global targets for waste reductions and bans on certain types of plastic.

Another group, including major oil and gas producers like the United States and Saudi Arabia, would prefer to be allowed to set national action plans for voluntary reductions, with the focus on recycling plastic rather than avoiding single-use plastic wherever possible.

Given how little plastic is actually recycled, however, it’s hard to see how the world can address its plastic pollution issue without gradually banning the types of plastic that become waste as soon as someone finishes their lunch.

The enjoyable Barbie film, starring Margot Robbie as the living incarnation of a polypropylene doll, so deftly delivers a message about the toxicity of the patriarchy and the expectations society places on women.

But it has nothing to say about the toxic hydrocarbons from which Barbie dolls are made. Remember, fossil fuels aren’t just for burning.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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