Only bold and sweeping reforms will bend the plastic consumption curve. Achieving a reduction in plastic pollution will require all stakeholders–from the petrochemical companies to the consumers–to control the crisis. A piecemeal approach won’t work.
The world will continue to drown in plastic waste unless a bold and comprehensive set of policy changes are agreed by the UN. To bring about peak plastic consumption, these policies would need to be at the most ambitious end of the spectrum being debated by UN treaty negotiators, which include governments, the petrochemical and consumer goods industries, and environmental groups. This is according to research by Back to Blue, an initiative of Economist Impact and the Nippon Foundation, which models the impact of a selection of policies being considered by world leaders as they draft a legally binding treaty to stem plastic pollution.
We model the impact of: a phased ban on problematic, unnecessary single-use plastic products (SUPPs); a mandatory extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime imposed on brands and retailers that introduce packaging to the market; and a tax on the production of virgin resin designed to redistribute the cost of negative environmental externalities. Our model tests whether any of these, alone or together, can achieve peak plastic consumption before 2050. The analysis is focused on the 19 countries of the G20.
Combined, the policies slow plastic consumption growth, but will not be enough to bring about a peak in plastic consumption by 2050, illustrating the scale of the challenge that lies ahead.
If the negotiators fail to agree on any policy interventions, we project that plastic consumption in the studied G20 countries will nearly double by mid-century.
The majority (99%) of plastic is derived from oil. The majority of plastic resin is produced in North America and Western Europe. China produces nearly a third.
Plastic converters modify or combine virgin or recycled materials to manufacture plastic products ranging from carrier bags to car interiors, toothbrushes to drainpipes.
Retailers and consumers use under half (45%) of all manufactured plastic in packaging with building and construction using around 19%.
Less than 10% of plastic waste generated has been recycled; 14% incinerated and 76% disposed of in landfills or released into the environment. Large amounts of plastic waste are exported with the majority being sent to countries with limited waste management capacities.
None of the three interventions we modelled will bring about peak plastic consumption by 2050. An integrated approach combining all three makes a dent—growth of 1.25 times the 2019 figure, compared with the baseline forecast of 1.73 times.
A globally agreed ban on single-use plastic products will do more to curb plastic consumption growth than a mandatory EPR and a tax on virgin resin. Under the SUPP ban, plastic consumption in 2050 is 1.48 times the 2019 figure.
EPR policies will require industry players that introduce packaging to the market to cover the cost of collecting and processing it after use. By 2050, consumption will grow to 1.66 times the 2019 figure. EPR is nonetheless vital, as it will improve waste collection and increase recycling rates, which will curtail plastic leakage into the environment.
An environmental tax would raise the cost on the principal input–virgin resin–helping to redress the existing anomaly of plastic prices that do not fully reflect its true cost to society. Our modelling suggests the impact of such a tax on consumption growth will be limited: consumption in 2050 is likely to be 1.57 times the 2019 figure, not much lower than the 1.73-times growth in our baseline forecast.
empire state buildings
empire state buildings
Source: OECD Global Plastics Outlook Database
Between 2000 and 2019, global plastic waste generated rose from 156 million tonnes to 353 million tonnes, a 126% growth rate. Assuming the UN treaty spurs dedicated action among national governments to combat plastic waste generation, this rate of growth is likely to slow down to 74% by 2040.
Source: OECD Global Plastics Outlook Database
With the notable exception of the EU, attempts to regulate parts of the plastic lifecycle have been left mainly to national or subnational authorities. Country-level initiatives are too fragmented, however, to generate a significant global impact.
Many governments at national, regional and municipal level have put rules in place on the sale or use of plastics that organisations or individuals must comply with. But many potentially impactful programmes are non‑mandatory.
It was once thought that recycling was the answer to plastic pollution. But as OECD recycling data confirms, current efforts are not making a big enough impact to dent plastic pollution, much less to support plastic circularity.
A phased ban on single-use plastic products (SUPP)
A mandatory EPR scheme imposed on retailers and brands
Plastic tax on virgin resin production
Eliminating low-utility, problematic and avoidable plastic through bans is one approach to help reduce leakage into marine and land environments. Currently, national and subnational product bans focus on carrier bags and food service items. In this scenario, we test if, and at what rates, bans on single-use plastic products in the G20 countries can bend the consumption curve to achieve peak plastic.
We use ban rates already in place in some countries. For those that do not have bans, we assume the global plastics treaty will make such bans mandatory, beginning from 2025. We assume that the ban rates will begin between 0.5% – 1% of the existing volume of plastic waste for most countries.
We expect countries to continue widening the scope of their bans to include more products. We quantify this in the model by adding a 10% increment to the previous year’s ban rate every year, across all countries.
To understand the effects of the policy interventions, we compare future plastic consumption levels with consumption levels in the base year of 2019. Under the baseline scenario without any policy interventions, we expect plastic consumption in 2050 to be 451mt, nearly two times higher than in 2019. In the case of a staged ban on single-use plastic products, 2050 consumption will be 14% lower than the baseline, at 385mt. This is a slower rate of growth, but still 1.48 times the 2019 figure in 2050.
To make a significant dent in the growth of plastic consumption, the bans on single-use plastic products imposed by countries must be considerably more aggressive than those considered here. This can be achieved without unduly limiting the production of plastic products that are necessary, such as those used for medical or for food hygiene purposes. But there are unnecessary and plastic items that are not yet being considered as part of country bans, including extremely hazardous ones such as fishing nets.