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Plastic pollution on the rise

Danial Norjidi

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released its first Global Plastics Outlook, revealing that the world is producing twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, with the bulk of it ending up in landfill, being incinerated or leaking into the environment; and only nine per cent recycled.

Released on February 22, the Global Plastics Outlook is aimed to inform and support policy efforts to combat plastic leakage. The report quantifies the current production, use, disposal and key environmental impacts throughout the entire plastics lifecycle and identifies opportunities for reducing the negative externalities. It also investigates how plastic use and waste have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic across sectors and regions.

According to an OECD press statement, the report 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.

“Almost half of all plastic waste is generated in OECD countries. Plastic waste generated annually per person varies from 221 kilogrammes (kg) in the United States (US) 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 five millimetres 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 per cent of overall leakage and 35 per cent of microplastics leakage. Within that, OECD countries account for 11 per cent of macroplastics leakage and 35 per cent of microplastics leakage,” said the statement, adding that international cooperation on reducing plastic pollution should include supporting lower-income countries in developing better waste management infrastructure to reduce their plastic leakage.

The report also found that the COVID-19 crisis led to a 2.2-per-cent 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 cooperation, 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,” said the statement. “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. Landfill and incineration taxes that incentivise 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.

“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 tonnes (Mt) in 2000 to 29.1 Mt in 2019, but this is still only six per cent of the size of total plastics production.”

The statement said 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.

It also suggests that setting recycled content targets and investing in improved recycling technologies could help to make secondary markets more competitive and profitable.

In the preface, OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said, “This is the first report to comprehensively take stock of current plastics production, use and waste generation, uncover the underlying economic drivers and map the related environmental impacts on a global level.

“The report also presents four key levers that are essential to bending the plastic curve: markets for recycled (secondary) plastics, technological innovation in plastics, domestic policy measures and international cooperation, including international financing. Our findings point to the need for a whole of life cycle approach requiring policy interventions both downstream of the value chain, such as end-of-life management, and upstream, like product design, for an effective policy mix.

“The Outlook can help decision-makers understand the direction in which we are heading and help to assess which policies can support a more sustainable and circular management of plastic materials.

“The OECD stands ready to assist governments in making this transition by designing, developing and delivering better policies to eliminate the negative environmental impacts of plastics production and ultimately achieve plastics-free oceans and rivers for future generations.”

“As the challenges associated with plastics production, namely growing leakage and greenhouse gas emissions, are transboundary in nature, it will also be crucial that countries respond to the challenge with coordinated and global solutions.”

The OECD is a global policy forum that promotes policies to preserve individual liberty and improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.


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