Plastics production and leakage in the environment have grown by "stunning" amounts in recent decades. But efforts to both limit pollution from those leaks and increased efforts to innovate new technological solutions have not kept pace.
Those are some of the conclusions of a Feb. 22 report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which said it is the broadest look yet at the global life cycle of plastics.
The new report found, for example, that innovation around plastics circularity — measured by analyzing patent and trademark data — is growing but still accounts for only a little more than 1 percent of patents in the plastics industry.
"A key point here is that circular plastics innovation, while growing, is only 1.2 percent of all innovation that's taking place in the plastics industry," said Shardul Agrawala, a lead author of the report and head of OECD's Environment and Economy Integration division. "Clearly there's a lot more that can be done in terms of directing technological change toward environmental and circularity aspects."
In a webinar to launch the report, he said it's the first attempt to quantify innovation related to the environmental aspects of plastics production and use.
OECD's Global Plastics Outlook report covers some familiar ground in the research around plastics in the environment, saying that 9 percent of plastics globally are recycled and 22 percent are mismanaged.
It estimates that it will cost about 25 billion euros ($28.3 billion) a year to close the plastic leakage pathways in lower- and middle-income countries, and it argues that the very large growth in plastics production in recent decades makes it unlikely that recycling can solve the problem on its own.
The report said plastics production globally doubled from 2000 to 2019, to 460 million metric tons, and notes that global production of recycled plastic quadrupled in the same period, to 29.1 million tonnes.
But it said that recycled plastic still only accounts for about 6 percent of global production, meaning that more effort is needed around building economic incentives around recycling.
Roland Geyer, a professor and plastics researcher at the University of California Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, told the webinar audience that when he shifted his research attention 15 years ago from studying the environmental impact of metals to plastics, he was "stunned to find out that every year we produce seven times as much virgin plastic as we make virgin aluminum."
"In the last 15 years, humankind has doubled its production of synthetic polymers," he said. "That is nothing short of astonishing."
The report said plastics use globally in the last two decades has grown 40 percent faster than GDP.
The release of the report comes a few days before a meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly begins Feb. 28 in Kenya, where countries are expected to debate a global treaty on plastics.
The OECD report makes a number of policy recommendations, and speakers on the webinar said it provides useful information on upstream policy options, beyond managing wastes, for UNEA negotiators to consider.
The report said global plastic waste generation has doubled in the last two decades, with two-thirds of that waste coming from products with lifespans of less than five years. About 40 percent of the plastic waste comes from packaging, it said.