by IISD's SDG Knowledge Hub,

Growing awareness of plastic pollution has influenced public opinion and led to stronger policy interventions, according to the 'Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options,' published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in February 2022. 

The authors report that the current magnitude of plastics consumption globally is leading to a high carbon footprint related to production, as well as to high waste volumes, persistent pollution, and harm to wildlife and ecosystems. The level of consumption requires increased circularity in the plastics lifecycle. The Outlook report underscores that making the plastics lifecycle more circular requires expanding national policies and improving international cooperation to mitigate environmental impacts along the whole value chain. Existing international, national, and local policy responses, and industry commitments are not sufficient, since plastics production and waste generation continue to increase.

The OECD report: quantifies the current production, use, disposal, and key environmental impacts throughout the plastics lifecycle; identifies opportunities for reducing negative externalities; seeks to inform and support policy efforts to combat plastic leakage; and investigates the ways in which COVID-19 has affected plastics use and waste across sectors and regions. The report provides a picture of the full lifecycle of plastics globally, including production, consumption, waste, recycling, disposal, leakage, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The Global Plastics Outlook outlines five key findings regarding current challenges: 

  • The plastics lifecycle is not currently circular. For example, from 2000 to 2019, only 9% of plastic waste was recycled, while 19% was incinerated and almost 50% went to sanitary landfills. The remaining 22% was disposed of in uncontrolled dumpsites, burned in open pits, or leaked into the environment.
  • COVID-19 has increased single-use plastic waste and related littering (including due to the use of protective personal equipment or PPE), though overall plastics use fell slightly due to lockdowns and decline in economic activity during 2020, which reduced plastics use by 2.2% from 2019 levels. 
  • Mismanaged plastic waste is the main source of macro-plastic leakage, which accounts for 88% of plastic leakage overall. Microplastics account for the other 12%, coming from sources such as tyre abrasion, brake wear, or textile washing. Microplastics contribute substantially to humans' and ecosystems' exposure to leaked plastics and related risks.
  • Significant stocks of plastics have already accumulated in aquatic environments. The build-up of plastics in rivers implies that leakage into the ocean will continue for decades even if mismanaged plastic waste is reduced.
  • Plastics have a significant carbon footprint, contributing 3.4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions throughout their lifecycle. In 2019, plastics generated 1.8 billion tonnes of emissions, with 90% of those emissions from their production and conversion from fossil fuels. 

The report also identifies four critical levers to reduce the environmental impact of plastics and increase circularity. First, the authors call for stronger support for recycled plastics markets. Secondary plastics from recycling are still only 6% of the total feedstock.

Second, the report notes the need for policies to increase technological innovation for a more circular plastics lifecycle. More ambitious policies could include investments in innovation and interventions to increase demand for circular solutions while reducing plastics consumption. Third, there is specific need at the domestic level for more ambitious policies. The Outlook reports that only 13 countries in 50 OECD, emerging, and developing countries have national policy instruments that provide direct financial incentives to sort plastic waste at source. Only 25 countries have effectively implemented instruments that encourage recycling, such as national landfill and incineration taxes. Globally, more than 120 countries have bans and taxes on single-use plastic items, but most are limited to plastic bags or other small-volume items. A policy roadmap is proposed for countries to reduce the leakage of macroplastics. 

Finally, the report calls for strengthening international cooperation to increase circularity and achieve net-zero plastic leakage. Investments in basic waste management infrastructure are needed, especially in developing countries. The required costs are estimated at EUR 25 billion a year in low and middle-income countries, and all available funding sources will be needed. Efficient use of such investments will also require effective legal frameworks to enforce disposal obligations. 

The Outlook is the first of two reports. [Publication: Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options]

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