Globally, 21 million tonnes of plastics leaked into environment last year: OECD

Report released two days before Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution for international treaty on plastics

By Zumbish
Published: Saturday 11 November 2023
Photo: iStock_

In 2022, 21 million tonnes (MT) of plastics leaked into the environment globally, a new interim report has found. The report by the intergovernmental organisation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was released on November 11, 2023, two days before the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC3).

The INC3 will be held in Nairobi, Kenya from November 13-19, 2023 for an international binding agreement on plastic pollution. 

The interim report, Towards Eliminating Plastic Pollution by 2040: A Policy Scenario Analysis, included preliminary findings on the benefits of thorough actions as well as on the costs of delayed or limited action. The full report, containing a more in-depth analysis and more detailed policy guidance, will be published in the first half of 2024.

It provided a clear roadmap for governments and policymakers to tackle the full lifecycle by curbing production and demand, increasing circularity, closing leakage pathways and bolstering recycling rates.

Carrying on business as usual would be untenable, the report stated. Under the baseline scenario, plastics use would continue to grow, leading to a 50 per cent increase in leakage of macroplastics into the environment by 2040 — meaning about 30 MT of plastic would leak into the environment, of which 9 MT would enter aquatic environments, it said. 

Burgeoning plastic use and waste volumes would amplify adverse consequences for the environment, climate and health, the report added.

Outcomes can be improved even with moderate international alignment of policy approaches that focus on downstream interventions in non-OECD countries and ambitious action across the lifecycle of plastics for OECD countries, the report suggested. 

Primary plastics use would stabilise at 2020 levels by 2040, said the report. However, in this scenario, plastic leakage would still be significant at 12 MT in 2040, it said.

The document also highlighted that global ambition with early, stringent and co-ordinated policy action could cut plastic waste generation in 2040 by a quarter below baseline. It could virtually eliminate mismanaged waste by 2040 (from 119 to 4 MT), it suggested. As a result, plastic leakage would also be nearly eliminated (1.2 MT in 2040). Stocks of plastics in rivers and oceans, however, would still rise from 152 MT in 2020 to 226 MT in 2040 (74 MT less than in the baseline).

Such ambitious policy action would cost 0.5 per cent of global GDP in 2040, according to the report. However, these costs exclude the avoided costs of inaction and must be viewed in the context of vastly improved environmental outcomes. 

“A comprehensive approach including both upstream and downstream measures would limit the costs of the transition. Delayed action may have short-term economic benefits but would bear longer-term societal and environmental repercussions,” the report said. 

The report went on to suggest that the largest costs (as a share of GDP) of ambitious global action are projected for fast-growing countries with less advanced management systems. It hints at investment needs for waste collection, sorting and treatment amounting to over $1 trillion between 2020 and 2040. This is for non-OECD countries combined. 

Meanwhile, it also recommended reducing waste generation to limit these costs, indicating that the costs of collection, sorting and treatment are contained. It further asserted that large financial needs and uneven distribution of costs imply a need for international co-operation.

“Significant technical and economic barriers must be overcome to eliminate leakage of plastics by 2040. This, including recycling breakthroughs and scaling up well-functioning international markets for scrap and secondary plastics,” the interim report stated.

OECD Environment Director Jo Tyndall stated in the report:

Plastic pollution poses an increasing threat to the environment, impacting habitats and natural ecosystems, with consequences for sustainable economic growth and human wellbeing. As the negotiations for an international, legally binding treaty on plastic pollution unfold, there is a need for further evidence to inform decision-making. 

The document raised concerns that despite increasing urgency to lower plastic pollution, current policies to stem plastic flows have proven to be insufficient. Therefore, the report presented four policy scenarios to tackle current challenges to reduce plastic pollution. These, it suggested, first include the most wide-ranging policy scenario that identifies a package of actions tackling the full lifecycle of plastics. 

The package of actions, according to it, could nearly end plastic pollution by 2040, eliminating 115 MT in mismanaged waste by 2040. The given figure here refers to over 95 per cent of the current total waste.

The aforementioned scenario, as per the report, requires increased investments, international co-operation and support for less advanced economies in their transition to a plastic pollution-free environment. 

“Improved waste management systems alone would require an additional 1 trillion USD in investments over a 20-year period in non-OECD countries. The more moderate scenarios show that lower levels of ambition and international co-ordination on plastic pollution would allow plastics to continue to leak into the environment beyond 2040,” the report said. 

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.