Report paints a sobering picture of current situation & challenges

OECD report maps lifecycle of plastics globally

THE OECD’s first Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options report, published in February, offers for the first time a comprehensive overview of current plastics production, use and waste generation, together with an assessment of the underlying economic drivers. The report also maps the related environmental impacts on a global level such as plastic leakage to the environment and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report also presents four levers ‘for action’ that are critical to reduce the environmental impacts of plastics: bolstering markets for recycled (secondary) plastics, boosting technological innovation in plastics, increasing the ambitions of domestic policy measures and scaling up international co-operation.

The report paints a sobering picture of the current situation and the challenges facing efforts to turn this around:

  • The world is producing twice as much plastic waste as 20 years ago, from 234 million tons (Mt) in 2000 to 460Mt in 2019, with most ending up in landfill (almost 50%), being incinerated (another 19%) or leaking into the environment. Only 9% is currently successfully recycled.
  • Almost half of all plastic waste is generated in OECD countries. Plastic waste generated annually per person varies from 221kg in the US and 114kg in European OECD countries to 69kg, on average, for Japan and Korea.
  • Most plastic pollution comes from inadequate collection and disposal of larger plastic debris known as macroplastics, but leakage of microplastics (synthetic polymers smaller than 5mm in diameter) from industrial plastic pellets, synthetic textiles, road markings and tire wear, among others, are also a serious concern.
  • OECD countries are behind 14% of overall plastic leakage. Within that, OECD countries account for 11% of macroplastics leakage and 35% of microplastics leakage.
  • Plastics use dipped 2.2% in 2020 as economic activity slowed due to the pandemic, littering increased. However, as economic activity resumed in 2021, plastics consumption has also rebounded.



Considering global value chains and trade in plastics, aligning design approaches and the regulation of chemicals will be key to improving the circularity of plastics.

Bolstering the secondary markets for plastics is also essential as secondary markets do not compete on a level playing field with primary plastics. The high costs of collection, sorting and processing make it difficult to compete on price. The producers of secondary plastics also tend to be much smaller firms and much less resilient in terms of resources compared to the producers of primary plastics producers.

To overcome these bottlenecks, demand for secondary plastics must be boosted, by means of measures such as green procurement policies, extended producer responsibility schemes,  and by boosting the competitiveness of these plastics.

Another intervention recommended is to boost innovation. Compared to the climate change discussion where innovation has been central to the policy discussion for several decades, there’s been no systematic measurement of innovation for a more circular economy on plastics.

Until this report, there were no metrics to measure and quantify trends in innovation in environmentally related innovation in plastics. The report offers a methodology to do that. The report found that environmentally relevant innovation makes up only 1.2% of all plastics-related innovation.

The third recommendation involves scaling up international financing and cooperation. The report, for the first time, quantifies how much it would cost to close the leakage pathways, focusing on low and middle income countries – €25 billion a year.

An international approach to waste management should lead to all available sources of financing, including development aid, being mobilised to help low and middle-income countries meet these costs to improve waste management infrastructure.

Other recommendations included a mix of policies to address the various aspects of the problem, such as taxes on single use products, measures to promote resource efficiency, promoting reuse, removing fossil fuel subsidies and  establishing recycled content targets, all of which can create financial incentives to reduce use and foster circularity.

Another element is how to encourage design for circularity – through recycled content standards, fee modulation of extended producer responsibility schemes, product norms, and regulation of hazardous chemicals.

In the report, a policy roadmap is proposed for countries to reduce the leakage of macroplastics. It proposes a three-pronged approach that starts with closing the leakage pathways and creating incentives for recycling and enhance sorting at source.

Finally, demand should be curbed and design optimised, to make plastic value chains more circular and recycled plastics more price competitive.