The amount of plastic the world has manufactured since mass production started around 1950 is staggering: by 2015 that number was estimated at 8.3 billion tonnes, of which 2 billion was still in use. The remainder was waste, with nearly 80% of that sent to landfills or polluting the environment, including the oceans, where it will take centuries to degrade (and even then it will not disappear).
Plastic is not the world’s only pollution challenge, but it is arguably the most prominent. When it comes to the ocean, for example, 60% of people say tackling plastic pollution is the top priority for restoring ocean health, ahead of dealing with chemical pollution and addressing climate change.
Plastic is not the world’s only pollution challenge, but it is arguably the most prominent.
The issue is unlikely to recede soon. The world makes and uses more plastic each year, with 367 million tonnes manufactured in 2020—most of which is used in packaging and construction. With production forecast to double by 2040, and with externality costs estimated at US$1,000 per tonne, the cost of plastics to society could by then exceed US$700bn annually.
By 2050, a century after mass production started, researchers predict the total amount of plastics made could have reached more than 25 billion tonnes. To put it another way, in the next 35 years we will produce twice as much plastic as we did in the first 65. Unless we change how we produce plastic and manage it as waste, as much as 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste could be in landfills or in the environment by that year.
Continuing along this path is plainly unsustainable. Dumping plastics, large volumes of which end up in the ocean, is not just ecologically disastrous, but it has also become publicly unacceptable. Deciding how best to proceed, however, is less clear.
The scale of the challenge demands a new framework that covers the entire lifecycle of plastic products—from design to production to consumption to disposal and beyond. This report, which introduces the Plastics Management Index (PMI), aims to contribute to this goal by bringing attention to growing global concerns around the use of plastic and highlighting how its management can be made sustainable. And with 2021 marking the start of the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science, the goal of which is science-based management of the oceans, the timing of this initiative is particularly apt.
The PMI, which is a project of Back to Blue, an initiative of Economist Impact and The Nippon Foundation, measures, compares and contrasts the efforts made by a selection of 25 countries at different stages of development in their management of plastics, covering the entire lifecycle of plastic products.
Its goal is to assess each country’s capacity to minimise plastics mismanagement or leakages across the plastics lifecycle, while promoting the optimal production and use of plastic as a resource. In so doing, it views the issue through the lens of policy, regulation and business practice, while also incorporating consumer actions and perspectives.
Dumping plastics, large volumes of which end up in the ocean, is not just ecologically disastrous, but it has also become publicly unacceptable.
Each of these categories comprises data from four sub-categories, which contain between two and six indicators. The resulting data are weighted according to importance after verification by Economist Impact analysts and consultation with independent experts to generate a score. The index also includes select data points from surveys of 1,800 consumers and nearly 770 executives in those countries. (See the Appendix of this paper for a full methodology.)
The PMI assesses a country’s capacity to minimise plastics mismanagement while promoting the optimal production and use of plastic as a resource.
It measures, compares and contrasts targeted efforts made by 25 countries, focusing on the plastics lifecycle through the lens of existing policies, regulations, infrastructure and systems, as well as business practices, consumer actions and perspectives.
The framework was based on a comprehensive literature review of academic studies and reports focused on plastics, as well as in-depth consultations through an Expert Panel and via interview.
It comprises three categories: the system of governance, existing systemic capacity and the engagement of key stakeholders involved in the plastics management process.
The framework consists of qualitative and quantitative indicators. A portion of the quantitative indicators were selected from consumer and executive surveys that were conducted between January and March 2021.
The PMI comprises 12 indicators and 44 individual sub-indicators.
Quantitative indicators: make up 20 of the 44 sub-indicators. For example, two indicators assess the corruption level and business environment in each country.
Qualitative indicators: are used for 24 of the 44 sub-indicators. These are based on a methodology decided upon by Economist Impact. For example, one indicator assesses the mechanisms in place for the management of single-use plastics in the country.
Each indicator and sub-indicator was then aggregated according to an assigned weighting to capture the importance of each category, indicator and sub-indicator, with the final aggregate scores and rankings based on these weights.
For a comprehensive assessment of the methodology, please see the Appendix.
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