6 minute read

Key findings

Next Article

Further reading

The business-as-usual outlook is unsustainable

Plastic pollution is one of the great environmental challenges of the 21st century, causing wide-ranging damage to ecosystems and human health. The projections in OECD’s Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060 suggest that in the absence of additional policies, by 2060:

l Global plastics use is projected to nearly triple from 2019 levels, driven by economic and population growth. While

OECD countries are projected to double their plastics use, the largest increases are expected in emerging economies in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

l While recycled (secondary) plastics are projected to grow quicker than virgin (primary) plastics and double their market share, they are projected to make up only 12% of total plastics use in 2060.

l Plastic waste is on course to almost triple, with half of all plastic waste generated still being landfilled and less than a fifth recycled. Improvements in waste management partially mitigate increases in the amount of mismanaged waste, which however still nearly doubles.

l Plastic leakage to the environment is projected to double to 44 million tonnes (Mt) a year, exacerbating environmental and health impacts. Meanwhile, the stocks of accumulated plastics in rivers and oceans is projected to more than triple, from 140 Mt in 2019 to 493 Mt in 2060. Microplastic leakage is projected to increase in all regions, highlighting the need for better mitigation solutions.

l Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the plastics lifecycle are projected to more than double, to 4.3 Gt CO2e. A range of other lifecycle impacts, including ozone formation, acidification, and human toxicity, are also projected to more than double.

Ultimately, while projections to 2060 are subject to uncertainties, plastic leakage is a major environmental problem. Flows to the environment are getting larger, continuing to amplify stocks in the environment and the magnitude of risks for ecosystems and human health. In the absence of significantly more stringent, ambitious and coordinated action, the global community is far from achieving its long-term objective of ending plastic pollution.

KEY TERMS

Mismanaged waste = waste that is not disposed of adequately, i.e. that is not recycled, incinerated or disposed of in sanitary landfills Leakage = plastics that enter the environment

A comprehensive policy package needs to take into account the whole plastics lifecycle

Achieving the global goal of eliminating plastic pollution, as articulated by the United Nations Environment Assembly in its resumed fifth session, requires shared objectives and co-ordinated efforts at the global level. Countries will need to implement comprehensive policy packages, combining measures that target all phases of the plastics lifecycle:

l Restraining plastics demand and enhancing circularity, including through more durable product design, is necessary to reduce the quantity of new plastics in the economy and thus reduce the scale of the severe environmental and human health problems that arise throughout the plastics lifecycle. Relevant policies include plastics taxes, which can be modulated to reduce the most polluting types of plastics and to incentivise circularity by decreasing the relative price of secondary plastics, as well as policies that incentivise the design of plastics that are more durable and repairable to extend product lifespans.

l Enhancing recycling is needed to ensure that any increase in plastic demand that cannot be avoided is met by recycled, second-hand, repaired or remanufactured products. Higher recycling rates can be achieved through policies such as recycled content targets, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for packaging and products such as electronics, motor vehicles and clothing, as well as recycling rate targets.

l Closing leakage pathways is a crucial part of a policy package aimed at eliminating plastic pollution. Interventions such as investments in waste collection and sanitary landfills as well as improved collection of litter are key to ensure that generated plastic waste is adequately managed and that it does not end up in the environment.

Figure 1. The policy packages target the entire plastics lifecycle

Restrain plastics demand and enhance circularity Enhance recycling Close leakage pathways

Packaging tax

Plastics tax on non-packaging items Ecodesign for durability and repair Enhance recycling through waste management Recycled content target

EPR for packaging, electronics, automotive and wearable apparel Improve plastic waste collection Improve litter collection

Production & Conversion Use Waste

Mismanaged

Landfilled

Incinerated

Recycled

Key findings (continued)

Eliminating plastic pollution is possible but requires strong global action

The level of ambition of the policies and of international engagement will determine the extent to which plastic pollution is reduced. This Outlook compares two policy scenarios with different levels of stringency:

l the Regional Action policy scenario reflects regionally differentiated engagement, with more ambitious targets for

OECD countries than for non-OECD countries

l the Global Ambition policy scenario explores a very stringent policy package that aims to reduce plastic leakage to near zero by 2060 globally.

Figure 2. Combining policies that target different lifecycle stages can drastically reduce plastics leakage to the environment

Yearly value in million tonnes (Mt), percentage change compared to Baseline

Plastic use Plastic waste Mismanaged plastic waste Plastic leakage

1231

1018

(-17%)

827

(-33%)

1014

837

(-17%)

679

(-33%)

460

353

2019

79

Baseline – 2060 Regional Action – 2060 Global Ambition – 2060

153

59

(-62%) 6 (-96%)

22 44 20

(-55%)

6

(-85%)

The scenario analysis shows that additional policies can increase the level of circularity of the economy and reduce the environmental impacts of plastics, at modest economic costs:

l Regionally differentiated levels of policy ambition can

substantially reduce plastic pollution by 2060.

The Regional Action policy package reduces plastic leakage to the environment which is more than halved by 2060, compared to the Baseline. The market-share of recycled plastics increases to 29% and mismanaged waste falls below 2019 levels, largely thanks to improved waste management in non-OECD countries. Despite these positive impacts, plastics use and waste are projected to still more than double from 2019 levels.

Share of recycled plastics

41%

29%

Global Ambition

12%

Regional Action

Baseline

2019 2060

l Co-ordinated and ambitious global efforts can almost 6%

eliminate plastic pollution by 2060.

The Global Ambition policy package almost completely eliminates plastic leakage to the environment by 2060. Nearly 60% of waste is projected to be recycled and the market share of recycled plastics to surge to 41% by 2060. In this scenario, mismanaged waste and plastic leakage to the environment fall to near zero.

l The economic consequences of the policy packages will be modest at the global level.

Both the Regional Action and Global Ambition policy packages can be implemented at relatively modest costs to GDP.

Compared to the Baseline, global GDP is projected to be only 0.3% lower in the Regional Action scenario and 0.8% lower in the Global Ambition scenario by 2060.

l Developing economies will face higher costs than the global average. The scenarios show that there are important regional differences in the economic consequences of the policy scenarios, with the highest costs projected to be in Sub-Saharan Africa in the Global Ambition scenario, where GDP would be reduced by 2.8% below the Baseline.

Official development assistance (ODA) is already used to support action to address plastics leakage in developing countries, but the financial flows are only a fraction of what is needed; additional sources of funding will be required.

Furthermore, capacity development and technology transfer will also be needed to support rapidly developing countries in improving their waste management systems.

l Even if ambitious action can eliminate plastics leakage, stocks of plastics continue to accumulate in rivers

and oceans.

Although plastics use and waste are projected to decouple in relative terms from economic growth in the policy scenarios, stocks of plastics in aquatic environments continue to build up, almost tripling from 2019 to 2060 in the

Regional Action scenario and doubling in the Global Ambition scenario. More urgent and stringent policies would therefore further slow down the build-up of plastics in the environment, while clean-up efforts will be required for the plastics that are already present in the environment. The costs for clean-up interventions to remove plastics from the marine environment, while large in absolute terms, are projected to be on average a third of the economic and environmental costs caused by plastic pollution.