Recycling ‘falling short’ as way to control plastic pollution

Posted on February 25, 2022 by DrRossH in Plastic Waste News

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Plastics production and leakage in the environment have grown by “stunning” amounts in recent decades. But efforts to both limit pollution from those leaks and increased efforts to innovate new technological solutions have not kept pace.

Those are some of the conclusions of a Feb. 22 report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which said it is the broadest look yet at the global life cycle of plastics.

The new report found, for example, that innovation around plastics circularity — measured by analyzing patent and trademark data — is growing but still accounts for only a little more than 1 percent of patents in the plastics industry.

“A key point here is that circular plastics innovation, while growing, is only 1.2 percent of all innovation that’s taking place in the plastics industry,” said Shardul Agrawala, a lead author of the report and head of OECD’s environment and economy Integration division. “Clearly there’s a lot more that can be done in terms of directing technological change toward environmental and circularity aspects.”

In a webinar to launch the report, he said it’s the first attempt to quantify innovation related to the environmental aspects of plastics production and use.

OECD’s Global Plastics Outlook report covers some familiar ground in the research around plastics in the environment, saying that 9 percent of plastics globally are recycled and 22 percent are mismanaged.

It estimates that it will cost about 25 billion euros ($28.3 billion) a year to close the plastic leakage pathways in lower-and-middle income countries, and it argues that the very large growth in plastics production in recent decades makes it unlikely that recycling can solve the problem on its own.

The report said plastics production globally doubled from 2000 to 2019, to 460 million metric tons, and notes that global production of recycled plastic quadrupled in the same period, to 29.1 million tonnes.

But it said that recycled plastic still only accounts for about 6 percent of global production, meaning that more effort is needed around building economic incentives around recycling.

Roland Geyer, a professor of environmental science and plastics researcher at the University of California Santa Barbara, told the webinar audience that when he shifted his research attention 15 years ago from studying the environmental impact of metals to plastics, he was “stunned to find out that every year we produce seven times as much virgin plastic as we make virgin aluminum.”

“In the last 15 years, humankind has doubled its production of synthetic polymers,” he said. “That is nothing short of astonishing.”

The report said plastics use globally in the last two decades has grown 40 percent faster than GDP.

The release of the report comes a few days before a meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly begins Feb. 28 in Kenya, where countries are expected to debate a global treaty on plastics.

The OECD report makes a number of policy recommendations, and speakers on the webinar said it provides useful information on upstream policy options, beyond managing wastes, for UNEA negotiators to consider.

The report said global plastic waste generation has doubled in the last two decades, with two-thirds of that waste coming from products with lifespans of less than five years. About 40 percent of the plastic waste comes from packaging, it said.

That prompted one speaker on the webinar, Miranda Schnitger, government lead for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its New Plastics Economy project, to argue that much more work needs to go into new models around packaging.

She said virgin plastics use among the companies working with EMF, which account for about 20 percent of global plastics use, is peaking. But most of that reduction has so far come from recycling.

“What really jumps out at me from the [report] is a really clear message that whilst we need to make the recycling systems that we have work, we will not be able to rely solely on recycling as a way to tackle plastics pollution,” Schnitger said.

She said companies need to develop packaging models based on reusable and compostable products, as well as recyclable materials.

The report said that the 38 nations in the OECD, mostly the world’s developed economies, account for about half of the plastic waste generated and about 14 percent of the plastics waste in the environment.

It said the United States generates about 221 kilograms of plastic waste per person each year, compared with 114 kg person in European OECD nations and 69 kg in South Korea and Japan.

The report said most plastic pollution comes from plastic products, but leakage of microplastics smaller than 5 millimeters from resin pellets, synthetic textiles, road markings and tires are also a serious concern.

On a government front, the report recommends tools that policymakers should use, including extended producer responsibility and other policies like bans or taxes to level the playing field for recycled materials.

“Our bottom line message is that the vast majority of countries, OECD and non-OECD, do not have adequate incentives in place to enhance plastics circularity and reduce the environmental impacts from plastics,” said Agrawala.

At the “most ambitious level,” he said the report recommends pursuing policies that design out waste and try to restrain demand.

“Bans or taxes on single-use plastics, removing fossil fuel subsidies, regulating hazardous substances, recycled content standards and modulating extended producer responsibility fees are some of the policies countries can use,” Agrawala said.

The report said that plastics account for 3.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and webinar presenters argued that plastic needs to be more circular to reduce that.

But Agrawala also noted some nuances, like recognizing that plastics are a heterogenous mix of materials.

And he said policymakers need to consider environmental impacts of other materials that may be substituted for plastics.

“These policies need to be designed carefully because we also need to take into account the environmental implications of the substitute,” Agrawala said. “It is important to design the policies in a way that we lessen the overall environmental impact and that we don’t just shift the burden from the plastic bag to something else.”

The report also look at the “quite dramatic impact” of the changes in global trade in plastics waste in the last few years, as a result of policies like amendments to the Basel Convention on shipping hazardous waste, he said.

He said it’s led to changes in trade flows away from countries that lack capacity to manage plastic waste in an environmentally sound way.

But Agrawala also cautioned against waste trade policies that limit materials that could have economic benefits and make a circular plastics economy more efficient globally.

“There’s a risk we might throw the baby with the bathwater,” he said.

OECD officials said the plan to release more plastics related reports in coming months, including around innovation and a report looking at various plastics industry economic scenarios through 2060.