To inform upcoming UN talks on reducing plastic waste, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has released a Global Plastics Outlook report. The news is not good; in the OECD's words, "Plastic pollution is growing relentlessly as waste management and recycling fall short."
The report is filled with some facts that you may already know—just 9% of plastic is successfully recycled—and straightens out some other areas where we may have been misled. For instance, plastic bag bans are a big step forward, right? Not really, the report finds:
"Bans and taxes on single-use plastics exist in more than 120 countries but are not doing enough to reduce overall pollution. Most regulations are limited to items like plastic bags, which make up a tiny share of plastic waste, and are more effective at reducing littering than curbing plastics consumption."
Some other takeaways:
- Plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years, driven by growth in emerging markets. Global plastics production doubled from 2000 to 2019 to reach 460 million tonnes. Plastics account for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Global plastic waste generation more than doubled from 2000 to 2019 to 353 million tonnes. Nearly two-thirds of plastic waste comes from plastics with lifetimes of under five years, with 40% coming from packaging, 12% from consumer goods and 11% from clothing and textiles.
- Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled (15% is collected for recycling but 40% of that is disposed of as residues). Another 19% is incinerated, 50% ends up in landfill and 22% evades waste management systems and goes into uncontrolled dumpsites, is burned in open pits or ends up in terrestrial or aquatic environments, especially in poorer countries.
- In 2019, 6.1 million tonnes (Mt) of plastic waste leaked into aquatic environments and 1.7 Mt flowed into oceans. There is now an estimated 30 Mt of plastic waste in seas and oceans, and a further 109 Mt has accumulated in rivers. The build-up of plastics in rivers implies that leakage into the ocean will continue for decades to come, even if mismanaged plastic waste could be significantly reduced.
While one can say all consumers and all manufacturers are complicit, the following line in the summary does mention a specific profession, members of whom happen to be Core77's target readership:
"Reducing pollution from plastics will require action, and international co-operation, to reduce plastic production, including through innovation, better product design and developing environmentally friendly alternatives, as well as efforts to improve waste management and increase recycling."
This is not to say that product designers are to blame for the mess. But it does indicate that it's one of the few professions in a direct position to help fix the problem.
If you're a product designer who's interested in crunching numbers, you can check out the Global Plastics Outlook Dataset to look at just the raw statistics.
For a more comprehensive (and comprehensible) overview, you can also read the full Global Plastics Outlook report online, for free. If it's something you need to download and circulate amongst members of your organization, you can purchase a PDF ($31) or a PDF and print version ($53) at that last link as well.