The world is producing twice as much plastic waste as it was just 20 years ago, with the bulk of it ending up in landfills, incinerated in open pits or making its way into the environment, from ocean habitats to our own respiratory and digestive systems.
Only about 9% of the world’s plastic is successfully recycled, according to a report Tuesday from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The Paris-based group, with 38 member-countries, issued its report ahead of impending United Nations’ talks on a global plastic-reduction treaty.
“ Plastic waste generated annually per person varies from 221 kilograms in the U.S. and 114 kg in European OECD countries to 69 kg, on average, for Japan and Korea. ”
More than 50 countries, including all 27 members of the European Union, are calling for a U.N. pact to include measures targeting plastic production as the OECD’s first Global Plastics Outlook shows that as rising population and income drive a relentless increase in the amount of plastic being used and thrown away, policies to curb its leakage into the environment are falling short.
Plastics play a key role in food hygiene and medical practices, to name just a few of their uses.
Many plastics interests will be involved in the U.N. talks. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a group of U.S.-based oil and chemical firms, the source of plastic creation, is also working behind the scenes to form a coalition of businesses to help steer treaty discussions away from production restrictions, a Reuters report said, citing emails about forging that coaltion.
American consumers on top
Plastic waste generated annually per person varies from 221 kilograms in the U.S. and 114 kg in European OECD countries to 69 kg, on average, for Japan and South 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 milimeters in diameter) from things like industrial plastic pellets, synthetic textiles, road markings and wear from tires are also a serious concern.
Paul Anastas, the director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering and a professor in the practice of chemistry for the environment at Yale University, explained in a report separate from the OECD release that there are both primary and secondary microplastics.
Primary microplastics are often found as small spheres in exfoliating face washes or as fine powder in toothpaste and sunscreen. “Typically, they are washed down the drain, slip through water treatment plants and enter into waterways,” he said.
On the other hand, secondary microplastics are “large plastic materials that could be used in packaging or building materials that just get ground down over time either through abrasion, wind, or sun rays, and become microplastics,” Anastas explained. Plastic bags, bottles and food containers, as well as paints, adhesives and coatings, and electronics are all examples of materials that can break down and release secondary microplastics.
The OECD report found that the COVID-19 crisis led to a 2.2% decrease in plastics use in 2020 as economic activity slowed, but a rise in food takeaway packaging and plastic medical equipment, such as masks, has driven up littering.
As economic activity resumed in 2021, plastics consumption has also rebounded.
Change the approach?
The OECD suggested policies including better product design and developing environmentally friendly alternatives to packaging and transporting goods, as well as efforts to improve waste management and increase recycling.
Bans and taxes on single-use plastics exist in more than 120 countries but are not doing enough to reduce overall pollution, the report found. Most regulations are limited to items like plastic bags, which make up a tiny share of plastic waste, and are more effective at reducing littering than curbing consumption of plastics.
Landfill and incineration taxes that incentivize recycling only exist in a minority of countries. The report calls for greater use of instruments such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for packaging and durables, landfill taxes, deposit-refund and Pay-as-You-Throw systems.
The concept of EPR is to make product manufacturers and distributors responsible for their products and packaging at the end of their life cycle. It’s similar to the way old paint is collected, but extends to many more products. In the U.S., several states have advanced bills to varying degrees of success.
Late last year, a major national plastics lobby, the Plastics Industry Association, testified in support of an EPR bill in the state of Massachusetts.
Most plastics in use today are virgin, or primary, plastics, made from crude oil
or gas. Global production of plastics from recycled, or secondary, plastics has more than quadrupled from 6.8 million metic tons (Mt) in 2000 to 29.1 Mt in 2019, but this is still only 6% of total plastics production.
“ Most regulations are limited to items like plastic bags, which make up a tiny share of plastic waste, and are more effective at reducing littering than curbing plastics consumption. ”
for one, earlier this month made a fresh commitment to reusing bottles, a move praised by several environmental groups, with one activist sustainable-investing group declaring the pledge “industry-leading.”
More needs to be done to create a separate and well-functioning market for recycled plastics, which are still viewed as substitutes for virgin plastic, the OECD report said. Setting recycled-content targets and investing in improved recycling technologies could help to make secondary markets more competitive and profitable, the OECD said.
Considering global value chains and trade in plastics, aligning design approaches and the regulation of chemicals will be key to improving the circularity of plastics. An international approach to waste management should lead to all available sources of financing, including development aid, being mobilized to help low- and middle-income countries meet estimated costs of 25 billion euros a year to improve waste-management infrastructure, the OECD said.
Other report findings:
- Plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years, driven by growth in emerging markets. Plastics account for 3.4% of global greenhouse-gas emissions.
- Global plastic-waste generation more than doubled from 2000 to 2019, to 353 million metric tons. Nearly two-thirds of plastic waste comes from plastics with lifetimes of under five years, with 40% coming from packaging, 12% from consumer goods and 11% from clothing and textiles.
- In 2019, 6.1 million metric tons of plastic waste leaked into aquatic environments and 1.7 Mt flowed into oceans. There is now an estimated 30 Mt of plastic waste in seas and oceans, and a further 109 Mt has accumulated in rivers.