Plastic waste is set to triple by 2060, according to a new report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. But the world has woken up to the threat posed by the scourge of plastic pollution and is taking action.
Plastic is part of our lives. We all use it daily. It packages our food, is part of our cars and public transport, and even clothes us. Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion tons of plastics have been produced, with almost 80 percent ending up in landfills or leaked into the environment. Only 9 percent is successfully recycled, says the OECD.
While this lightweight, strong, waterproof material has many benefits, it comes with some big drawbacks. Most plastic isn't biodegradable, so it stays in the environment for hundreds of years, damaging ecosystems. It relies on oil for its production so has a negative impact on carbon emissions. Increasing plastic production means plastics are almost everywhere on earth, in our oceans and our bodies. This is bad for our health, wildlife and the planet.
The world has woken up
The amount of plastic waste produced globally is likely to almost triple by 2060, against a 2019 baseline, according to the OECD’s latest report ‘Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060’. Published in July 2022, the report looks at the current reach of policy ambitions around tackling plastic waste and pollution on national, regional and international levels, mapping out likely changes through to 2060.
It certainly paints a stark picture. But the world has woken up to the threat posed by plastics –governments, the private sector, and communities around the world are taking action. From bans and taxes on various single-use plastics, to investments in waste collection, and policies on reduced plastics packaging, to beach clean-ups.
In a historic move in early 2022, heads of state, environment ministers and other representatives from 175 nations, endorsed a resolution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi to end plastic pollution, and forge an international legally binding agreement, by the end of 2024. The move was described by the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) as the most important multilateral environmental deal since the Paris climate accord in 2015.
Parts of the world have certainly woken up the scale of plastic waste and pollution, but there’s still a long way to go to solving it. Here are five key ways to tackling the plastic problem:
Taking action Doing nothing isn’t an option. The lifetime cost to society, the environment and the economy of plastic produced in 2019 alone has been revealed at US$3.7 trillion, more than the GDP of India, according to a report commissioned by WWF. Given projected growth in consumption, oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050, by which time the plastics industry will consume 20 percent of total oil production, and 15 percent of the annual carbon budget.
Knowing the challenge Recycling isn’t straightforward and a circular model for plastics is extremely difficult, says food and agricultural economist Thijs Geijer, team lead global sector research at ING, and author of a 2019 ING report into plastic packaging. Most food packaging, one of the biggest sources of plastics, cannot be reused by the food industry for food safety reasons. And plastics degrade and lose their value in every successive cycle. Nor can plastics just be swapped for alternatives, such as paper or glass, which also have high environmental costs.
Listening to customers Embrace changing consumer attitudes as a driver of corporate motivation. The 13 firms that signed up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ‘100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025’ campaign, including L’Oréal, Mars, and Coca-Cola, want to enhance their reputation among customers, many of which are eager to make ‘greener’ choices. Our buying power as consumers could prompt “a transition from the linear take-make-dispose model to one which is truly circular by design,” says former Unilever CEO Paul Polman. Action can be swift once the public is mobilised. For instance, changing consumer demand has put pressure on companies to abandon plastic straws. In celebration of Earth Day in 2022, Footprint – a global materials science and technology company aiming to make our planet healthier – announced that it had sold more than half a billion plant-based straws since 2019, supporting top clients such as McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Panera Bread in their efforts to eliminate the use of plastic straws.
Setting standards Governments must impose rules and incentivise activity. For example, the closed loop of PET bottle recycling, incentivised in Germany and elsewhere by a deposit scheme, shows what can be achieved: bottles in Germany have a return rate of 98 percent. And in Lithuania, beverage container return rates rose from 34% to 92% in less than two years after introducing a scheme in 2016.
Look for many solutions There are many ways to increase recycling, reduce plastic production and encourage the use of bioplastics; changes to plastic composition to promote easier recycling, and taxes, subsidies and incentives could all be important. Different solutions, or combinations of solutions, may be needed for different markets or countries. Companies and consumers need to be open-minded and flexible: the balance of solutions is likely to change over time as technology evolves.