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Plastic waste grows "relentlessly" as recycling falls short

Twice as much plastic waste is now produced compared to 20 years ago, and only nine percent of it is recycled, according to the recently published Global Plastics Outlook from OECD. The majority of plastic waste ends up in a landfill, incinerated, or leaking into the environment

Almost half of all plastic waste is produced in OECD member countries, some of which include the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Japan, France, and Germany. The Outlook notes that international cooperation on reducing plastic pollution should include supporting lower-income countries in developing better waste management infrastructure to reduce their plastic leakage.

“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.”

While restrictions on single-use plastics exist in more than 120 countries, these actions are not doing enough to reduce overall pollution. The experts note that most regulations are limited to items like plastic bags, which make up a tiny share of plastic waste.

The report states 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.”

The report summarizes the full life cycle of plastics globally, including production, consumption, waste, recycling, and disposal. The following are some key findings from the Outlook:

  • Plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years, driven by growth in emerging markets. Global plastics production doubled from 2000 to 2019 to reach 460 million tons. Plastics account for 3.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Global plastic waste generation more than doubled from 2000 to 2019 to 353 million tons. Nearly two-thirds of plastic waste comes from plastics with lifetimes of under five years, with 40% coming from packaging, 12% from consumer goods and 11% from clothing and textiles.
  • Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled (15% is collected for recycling but 40% of that is disposed of as residues). Another 19% is incinerated, 50% ends up in landfill and 22% evades waste management systems and goes into uncontrolled dumpsites, is burned in open pits or ends up in terrestrial or aquatic environments, especially in poorer countries. 
  • In 2019, 6.1 million tons (Mt) of plastic waste leaked into aquatic environments and 1.7 Mt flowed into oceans. There is now an estimated 30 Mt of plastic waste in seas and oceans, and a further 109 Mt has accumulated in rivers. The build-up of plastics in rivers implies that leakage into the ocean will continue for decades to come, even if mismanaged plastic waste could be significantly reduced.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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