Ambitious global policies could mitigate the likely impacts of plastic pollution on people and ecosystems. This is according to a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published on Friday.
The “Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060” shows the extent of plastic waste and environmental damage to be expected in the next forty years. The first conclusion is that “business as usual” is not sustainable.
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The projections build on the Global Plastics Outlook published in February on economic drivers, environmental impacts and policy measures. Since then, member states of the United Nations have pledged to negotiate a legally binding international agreement by 2024 aimed at reducing environmental pollution from plastic waste.
Without drastic measures, the global consumption of plastics is expected to almost triple due to economic and population growth, the OECD expects. The projections show an increase from 460 million tons in 2019 to over 1.2 billion tons in 2060. Although the proportion of recycled plastics will roughly double, it is expected to account for only 12 percent in 2060.
The amount of plastic waste would almost triple and around half of it would end up in landfills. Only about a fifth of plastic waste is sent for recycling. Around 44 million tons per year will enter the environment and the amount of plastic accumulated in rivers and oceans is expected to more than triple, from an estimated 140 million tons in 2019 to nearly 500 million tons in 2060.
According to forecasts, the release of microplastics will increase in all regions of the world and the emissions of greenhouse gases from the production, use and disposal of plastics will increase to an amount which, in terms of their warming effect, corresponds to around 4.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide – which is roughly the greenhouse gas emissions of the European Union in 2019.
While projections up to 2060 are fraught with uncertainty, the report says, risks to ecosystems and human health would increase without “much more stringent, ambitious and coordinated” action. “The global community is a long way from meeting its long-term goal of ending plastic pollution.”
To this end, the OECD proposes packages of measures to countries that could reduce demand, promote reuse and improve disposal. It is about starting with all phases of the life cycle of plastics.
Plastic taxes, especially on the most polluting plastics, could create incentives to increase the lifespan of plastic products and strengthen the circular economy. This could make recycled plastics cheaper. However, recycling needs to be improved to meet increasing demand. Policies could set targets for recycling rates and increase manufacturers’ responsibility for packaging and products in the electronics, automotive and clothing sectors. In the optimistic scenario, a recycling rate of 60 percent and a market share of recycled plastic of over 40 percent are achieved.
To tackle plastic pollution in the environment, investments should be made in waste collection and landfills. If plastic waste was properly managed, the amount entering the environment could drop from 22 million tons in 2019 to 6 million tons by 2060. However, plastic waste continues to accumulate in rivers and oceans, requiring clean-up efforts. The cost of removing plastic waste from the sea would, on average, be only a third of the economic and environmental cost of plastic pollution.
The results now published are part of a more comprehensive report that is due to appear in a few months, the OECD announced. The Organization for Economic Cooperation is a global forum working with over 100 countries.