Waste, OECD alarm: “Still too much plastic, only 9% is successfully recycled”

Bans and taxes on single-use plastics exist in more than 120 countries, but they are not doing enough to reduce pollution

The world is producing double the gods plastic waste compared to two decades ago, with most of them ending up in landfills, incinerated or leaking into the environment, and only 9% is successfully recycled. Ahead of the UN talks on international action to reduce plastic waste, the first OECD Global Plastics Outlook shows that while rising population and incomes drive an unstoppable increase in the amount of plastic used and thrown away, policies to curb its loss to the environment are failing.

According to the report, nearly half of all plastic waste is generated in OECD countries. 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 results from inadequate collection and disposal of larger plastic debris known as macroplastics, but also the loss of microplastics (synthetic polymers less than 5mm in diameter) from things like industrial plastic pellets, synthetic fabrics, road markings, and tire wear is a serious concern.

OECD countries are behind 14% of overall plastic losses. Within this, OECD countries account for 11% of macroplastics losses and 35% of microplastics losses. The Outlook notes that international cooperation on reducing plastic pollution should include supporting low-income countries in developing better waste management infrastructure to reduce plastic losses.

The report notes that the Covid-19 crisis led to a 2.2% decrease in the use of plastics in 2020 due to slowing economic activity, but an increase in waste, take-out food packaging, and plastic medical equipment such as masks has led to more waste. With the resumption of economic activity in 2021, plastic consumption has also rebounded.

Reducing plastic pollution will require international action and cooperation to reduce plastic production, including through innovation, better product design and the development of environmentally friendly alternatives, 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 they are not doing enough to reduce overall pollution. According to the OECD’s Global Plastics Outlook, most regulations are limited to objects like i plastic bagswhich make up a small share of plastic waste, and are more effective in reducing waste than curbing plastic consumption. Landfill and incineration taxes that incentivize recycling exist only in a minority of countries. The Outlook calls for greater use of tools such as extended producer responsibility schemes for packaging and durable goods, landfill taxes, deposit refund systems and on-time pricing.

Most of the plastics in use today are virgin, or primary, plastics made from crude oil or gas. Global plastic production from recycled, or secondary, plastics more than quadrupled from 6.8 million tonnes (Mt) in 2000 to 29.1 Mt in 2019, but this is still only 6% of the total production size of plastic.

According to the report, more needs to be done to create a separate and well-functioning market for recycled plastic, which is still seen as a substitute for virgin plastic. Setting targets for recycled content andinvestment in recycling technologies improvements could help make secondary markets more competitive and profitable.