US responds as plastic waste is expected to triple by 2060

A new report from the OECD outlines the current trajectory of plastic use around the world, coming to the stark conclusion that our rate of plastic waste will almost triple by 2060 if no interim measures are taken. The report, titled Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060, is expected to be released in full on June 21, 2022.

Highlights of the report were released ahead of time and include three different future forecast scenarios: a baseline scenario with no major changes, a “regional action” policy scenario, and a “global ambition” policy scenario.

Visualize our growing plastic waste problem

According to the forecast reference scenario, the use of plastics is projected to increase from 460 million tonnes (Mt) in 2019 to 1,231 Mt in 2060. At the same time, plastic waste is projected to increase from 353 Mt to 1,014 Mt during the same period.

These numbers are difficult to understand. What does a million tons of plastic waste look like?

Let’s do some math and find out.

A standard plastic takeout container weighs about 25 grams and there are about 450 grams in a pound. Quick math, how many take-out containers in a pound? Right. That’s eighteen take-out containers in a pound.

2,000 pounds in a ton means there are 36,000 takeout containers in a ton. This means 36 billion take-out containers in a million tonnes. Still with me?

In 2019, there were 353 Mt of plastic waste; that’s 12.7 trillion take-out containers. Wow. Also keep in mind that a lot of plastic waste comes in much smaller forms, such as straws, cutlery, cups and bottles. The moral of the math is that we have a serious plastic waste problem.

The report notes an expected tripling of our plastic waste by 2060. So what can we do?

Recommendations to fight against plastic waste

The report breaks down its recommendations into four key areas. It advocates economic incentives to grow the market for recycled plastics, drive innovation for a more circular life cycle, strengthen national policies and strengthen international cooperation.

Of the plastic waste generated, only 15% is collected for recycling, but a large part of this ends up becoming recycling residue that still needs to be disposed of. Thus, only 9% of all plastic waste in 2019 ended up being recycled. At present, recycled plastics account for only 6% of the total plastic raw material.

The report’s recommendations aim to urge governments and international organizations to adopt policies and legislation that can help reduce plastic use and ultimately plastic waste. Plastic waste poses a significant threat to our natural environments.

In 2019, 6.1 Mt of plastic waste ended up in rivers, lakes and oceans (we’ll spare you the heartbreaking photo of marine life damaged by plastic pollution). But the harms of plastic extend beyond surface-level damage.

Plastic production also impacts the atmosphere, with most plastics being made from fossil fuels. Plastics generated 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.

Legislation against single-use plastics

On Wednesday, the United States announced that it would begin phasing out single-use plastics. This announcement has been a long time coming and should come as good news for Americans.

However, the ad leaves a lot to be desired. The ban will not come into effect until 2032 and will only cover national parks and other public lands. This will certainly not satisfy the authors of the OECD report, nor should it satisfy the general public. The announcement is far from the concrete measures taken in other countries.

Australia has banned all single-use plastic bags, with some states also banning other single-use plastics.

China has banned straws and plastic bags since January 1, 2021.

India begins a nationwide ban on single-use plastics on July 1. Canada has a plastics ban which is expected to come into force at the end of 2022. Scotland’s plastics ban came into effect on June 1, 2022, banning almost all single-use plastics.

Major economies around the world are set to ban the use of single-use plastics, but the world’s biggest plastic waste culprit, the United States, is dragging its feet on the matter.

Pending more robust government legislation, we could all reduce our own plastic use in a bid to reduce the 12.7 trillion take-out containers of plastic waste produced each year.

Image credit: Pixabay

Bryce K. Locke