The world is producing twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, and only 9% of it is successfully recycled.
The bulk of our plastic waste ends up in landfill, incinerated or leaking into the environment, according to a new OECD report published ahead of UN talks on international action to reduce plastic waste.
The OECD’s first Global Plastics Outlook shows that as rising populations and incomes 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.
Plastic waste per person
Almost half of all plastic waste is generated in OECD countries, according to the Outlook.
The plastic waste generated annually per person varies from 221kg in the United States and 114kg in European OECD countries to 69kg, 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 5mm in diameter) from things like industrial plastic pellets, synthetic textiles, road markings and tyre wear are also a serious concern.
OECD countries are behind 14% of overall plastic leakage. Within that, OECD countries account for 11% of macroplastics leakage and 35% of microplastics leakage.
Reducing plastic pollution
The Outlook notes that international co-operation on reducing plastic pollution should include supporting lower income countries in developing better waste management infrastructure to reduce their plastic leakage.
The report finds that the Covid-19 crisis led to a 2.2% decrease in plastics use in 2020 as economic activity slowed, but a rise in littering, 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.
Reducing pollution from plastics will require action and international co-operation to reduce plastic production, including through innovation, better product design and developing environmentally friendly alternatives, as well as efforts to improve waste management and increase recycling.
A ban on on single-use plastics?
Bans and taxes on single-use plastics exist in more than 120 countries but are not doing enough to reduce overall pollution.
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.