Plastic tsunami: How plastic waste is on track to almost triple by 2060

Governments must work together to avoid tidal wave of plastic waste, think tank warns

Plastic waste is on track to triple by 2060, according to the latest report from the OECD think tank, which warns that recycling capacity and circular economy policies are failing to keep pace with still surging global demand for plastics.

Research published this morning by the influential organization argues that without “radical action” to curb plastic demand, extend plastic product lifespans and improve waste management and recyclability, plastic waste is set to soar from 460 million tons in 2019 to 1,231 million tons by 2060. The study predicts that based on current trends by 2060 around half of plastic waste will still be dumped in landfill with less than a fifth recycled.

It alsos that plastic “leakage” into the natural environment could more than double by 2060 to 44 million tons a year, forecasting that the build-up of plastics in lakes, rivers, and oceans is set to balloon from 353 million predicts in 2019 to 1,014 million tons in 2060.

“Short-lived” items such as packaging, low-cost products and textiles are expected to make up two thirds of plastic waste by 2060, the analysis warns, with the increase in waste levels set to be fastest in developing and emerging countries in Africa and Asia that lack significant recycling capacity.

However, the richer nations that comprise the OECD are still expected to produce significantly more plastic waste per person than other nations in 2060, at 238kg per year on average, versus an average of 77kg annually. And while industrialized nations tend to have higher recycling rates and more effective circular economy policies, the report highlights that they are still a long way from delivering genuinely circular material flows for plastics.

The report also highlights how most plastic pollution in 2060 is expected to be generated from larger debris, known as macroplastics, but leakage of microplastics – synthetic polymers less than five milimetres in diameter – from items like industrial plastic pellets, textiles, and tire wear is Also a “serious concern” for both the environment and human health, the OECD said.

As it was published the bleak modeling, the think tank stressed there was potential to avoid its projected outcomes and instead reduce overall plastic waste by a third by 2060, if a raft of more ambitious plastic policies were introduced by governments.

Taxes on plastics, including on plastic packaging, incentives for reuse and repair of plastic items, targets for recycled content in new products, and extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes that ensure manufacturers help fund recycling collection and processing capacity are among the policies cited in the report as a means of reducing the significant environmental toll plastic consumption has on the natural environment.

“If we want a world that is free of plastic pollution, in line with the ambitions of the United Nations Environment Assembly, we will need to take much more stringent and globally co-ordinated action,” said OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann. “This report proposes concrete policies that can be implemented along the lifecycle of plastics that could significantly curb – and even eliminate – plastic leakage into the environment.”

The new report is the second in a series from the OECD that aims to quantify the scale of plastic pollution globally. The first, published in February, noted that plastic waste has doubled in two decades, with most ending up in landfill, incinerated or leaking into the environment.

The reports come as pressure is mounting on policymakers and businesses to ramp up their efforts to tackle plastic pollution. In April, international governments pledged to negotiate a legally binding international agreement to end plastic pollution, vowing to have a treaty finalized by the end of 2024.

And last month, Scotland announced it was the first nation in the UK to implement a ban on many of the most problematic single-use plastics, mirroring moves from a growing number of jurisdictions around the world.

However, as the OECD’s sobering new report makes clear, no government is yet to get a real grip on the plastic pollution crisis, and while policies are available that can curb plastic demand and boost recycling rates, few regions are deploying them in a co-ordinated and effective fashion. Pressure on policymakers and businesses to deliver genuine circularity and identify alternatives to the most polluting plastics is set to intensify, but without meaningful action the plastic waste tsunami will continue to build.

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