“One can only manage what one can measure,” said Shardul Agrawala, head of the Environment and Economy Integration Division at the OECD Environment Directorate yesterday at the press conference held ahead of the presentation of the OECD’s first Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options report. That report, presented today, offers for the first time a comprehensive overview of current plastics production, use and waste generation, together with an assessment of the underlying economic drivers. The report also maps the related environmental impacts on a global level such as plastic leakage to the environment and greenhouse gas emissions.
It then also presents four levers ‘for action’ that are critical to reduce the environmental impacts of plastics: bolstering markets for recycled (secondary) plastics, boosting technological innovation in plastics, increasing the ambitions of domestic policy measures and scaling up international co-operation.
The report paints a sobering picture of the current situation and the challenges facing efforts to turn this around.
A few figures: the world is producing twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, soaring from 234 million tonnes (Mt) in 2000 to 460 Mt in 2019, with most ending up in landfill (almost 50%), being incinerated (another 19%) or leaking into the environment. Only 9% is currently successfully recycled.
Almost half of all plastic waste is generated in OECD countries, according to the Outlook. Plastic waste generated annually per person varies from 221 kg in the United States and 114 kg in European OECD countries to 69 kg, on average, for Japan and Korea. Most plastic pollution comes from inadequate collection and disposal of larger plastic debris known as macroplastics, but leakage of microplastics (synthetic polymers smaller than 5 mm in diameter) from industrial plastic pellets, synthetic textiles, road markings and tire wear, among others, are also a serious concern.
In addition, OECD countries are behind 14% of overall plastic leakage. Within that, OECD countries account for 11% of macroplastics leakage and 35% of microplastics leakage.
And while plastics use dipped 2.2% in 2020 as economic activity slowed due to the pandemic, littering increased, among other things, of face masks. However, as economic activity resumed in 2021, plastics consumption has also rebounded.