4. Plastic waste projections to 2060

The current use of plastics is far from circular, generating a significant amount of plastic waste that ends up in the environment. Most of this plastic waste is collected with other materials in the form of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), which contains an important share of plastics. Waste estimates from the ENV-Linkages model include MSW as well as microbeads, waste from road markings and industrial waste, which includes waste from construction and transport activities.

The dynamics of plastic waste differ from those of plastics use as there is a time lag between use and waste, the length of which depends on the lifespan of the product (see Chapter 2 in OECD (2022[1])). For example, on average, plastics used in transport only become waste after 13 years on average, whereas the lifespan of some plastics in construction can be as long as 35 years. Other applications, such as consumer products and packaging, have very short lifespans.

In the Baseline scenario, plastic waste is projected to increase substantially in the coming decades, rising from 353 Mt in 2019 to 1 014 Mt in 2060 (Figure 4.1). In this scenario, continued socio-economic developments and economic growth, including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic (Chapter 2), lead to rapidly rising plastics use (Chapter 3). An important trend is that emerging and developing economies catch up to higher income countries, implying that plastics use increases faster in these countries.

In line with the growth in the use of plastics, plastic waste increases for all applications, though not at the same rate. Waste from short-lived plastic products, such as packaging, consumer products and textiles, is projected to increase substantially, but their share in overall waste is projected to slightly decrease, from 63% in 2019 to 59% in 2060, as waste increases at a faster rate for other applications, such as motor vehicles.

One major development is the large increase in plastics use for construction. Growing economies invest in infrastructure and construction (OECD, 2019[2]), driving a rapid increase in the use of durable plastics with long lifespans. These long lifespans mean there is a lag between their production and end of life as waste (Figure 4.2). Indeed, the role of “historical” waste, i.e. waste from applications produced before 2019 is quite substantial for durable products such as those used in the vehicle and construction industries. While for packaging almost all waste generated after 2019 comes from plastics produced in or after 2019, for construction, more than 90% of plastic waste up until 2040 will be from plastics produced before 2019. The lag between plastics use and waste implies that plastics stocks accumulate in the economy and continue to create waste flows beyond 2060 (see Box 4.1).

Though plastic waste is projected to increase in all regions, it will increase most in non-OECD countries (Figure 4.4), driven by economic growth in emerging economies in Africa and Asia especially. While OECD countries generated roughly half of all plastic waste in 2019, their global share is projected to decrease to one-third in 2060, despite a projected doubling of their plastic waste generation, from 172 Mt in 2019 to 358 Mt in 2060. Non-OECD countries jointly increase their plastic waste production from 181 Mt to 657 Mt. A significant portion of the growth until 2060 already occurs before 2030, especially in currently fast-growing economies like the People’s Republic of China (hereafter ‘China’), whose share in global waste is projected to increase from 19% to 21%. After 2030, the share of China in global waste declines somewhat (to 18% in 2060), as growth concentrates especially in India, Other non-OECD Asia and Africa.

The global average amount of plastic waste produced by each person is projected to double by 2060 from 2019 levels (Table 4.1). The highest growth rates for average per-capita waste are in regions that currently use relatively little plastics, such as Africa and Asia. While the growth in per-capita plastic waste is highest in non-OECD countries, they start from much lower levels. Therefore, their average waste per capita is projected to still be much lower than in OECD countries in 2060.

The end-of-life fates of plastics vary by region, depending on waste management capacity and regulations. The ENV-Linkages model distinguishes between four different waste management categories:1

  • Recycled: waste that is collected for recycling, processed, and used for the production of secondary plastics. This waste stream excludes the residues from recycling processes (see Box 4.2) that are disposed of using the other waste management categories.

  • Incinerated: waste that is incinerated in a state-of-the art industrial facility, either with or without energy recovery.

  • Landfilled: waste that is disposed of on the land, in a controlled way and according to state-of-the-art sanitary, environmental and safety requirements.

  • Mismanaged: all other waste. This category includes waste that is collected and subsequently burned in open pits, dumped in water or disposed of in dumpsites and unsanitary landfills. It also includes waste that is not captured by waste collection, including e.g. road markings. This category also includes uncollected litter, i.e. waste that results from littering by individuals or from fly-tipping, and that is not collected via street sweepings or other clean-up actions. It does not include collected litter that is disposed of through one of the other categories.

ENV-Linkages projects the future shares for recycled, incinerated, landfilled and mismanaged waste to 2060. It does so based on a combination of assumptions and cross-country regression analysis that assess the link between waste management categories and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (see Annex A). One of the underlying assumptions is that the share of plastic waste collected for recycling keeps growing to 2060 at the same average rate as over the last 40 years. Another important assumption is that countries with growing income, invest in better waste collection and treatment as well as in improved litter clean-up, resulting in lower shares of total mismanaged waste.

There are noticeable differences in waste management between regions, reflecting past trends and countries’ commitments. For instance, recycling is projected to rise steeply in the OECD EU and OECD Pacific regions, as well as China, following strong policy commitments. The share of incineration is projected to decline in OECD EU and OECD Pacific countries that already have high incineration rates. In contrast, in regions such as the Middle East and Africa and Latin America, the share of incineration is expected to increase, though remaining far below incineration shares in other regions. The share of landfilling decreases in several regions, including OECD EU and OECD Pacific, due to the increase in recycling and incineration. Conversely, the share of landfilling is projected to increase in non-OECD countries thanks to improved basic waste management and slowly declining mismanaged waste shares. However, mismanaged waste remains a large share of plastic waste in non-OECD countries.

In the Baseline scenario, recycling is projected to grow most, increasing from 33 Mt in 2019 to 176 Mt in 2060 (Figure 4.7). Thus, the share of plastic waste that is recycled almost doubles, reaching 17% of all waste generated, from 9% in 2019. This is a key indicator of circularity, together with the share of secondary plastics in total plastics production presented in Chapter 3, and shows that over time the global plastic economy becomes more circular

Incineration and landfilling also experience steady growth, with landfilling projected to remain the most common waste management category, although regional shares differ widely depending on how scarce land is in the region.2 The amount of landfilled plastic waste triples from 174 Mt in 2019 to 507 Mt in 2060 while incinerated waste increases from 67 Mt to 179 Mt. Globally, the share of landfilling remains constant at around 50% while incineration accounts for a little less than 20% of plastic waste in 2060.

Mismanaged waste is projected to grow more slowly than other end-of-life fates. This is because recycling absorbs a bigger share of waste, and emerging countries invest part of their additional income in improved waste management facilities and litter collection. Consequently, the share of mismanaged waste decreases from 22% in 2019 to 15% in 2060. However, the amount of mismanaged waste still increases, driven by the growth in waste – nearly doubling from 79 Mt in 2019 to 153 Mt in 2060.

Both the increased quantity of waste and improved waste management contribute to a strong increase in the amount of waste being recycled (Figure 4.8). Improved waste management takes into account changes in the share of plastic waste collected for recycling, as well as in the share of recycling residues that need to be disposed of (Roosen et al., 2020[3]), as explained in Box 4.3.

Improved waste management reduces the amounts of total mismanaged waste, partly offsetting the increase in plastic waste (Figure 4.9). Improvements in waste management systems are projected to be concentrated in emerging and developing economies, which are also the regions with the fastest growth rates of plastic waste (see Section 4.2.2).

The projections of plastics use and waste outlined in this chapter rely on modelling assumptions and choices, which differ in part from those used previously in the literature. They add to the existing literature on plastics projections, confirming certain estimates and challenging others (Box 4.4).

In the coming decades, waste management will evolve differently in OECD and non-OECD countries. In OECD countries, recycled waste will increase substantially. Recycling rates will increase from 9% in 2019 to 17% in 2060 (Figure 4.10). While landfilled and incinerated plastic waste will increase, their relative contribution remains stable over time. OECD countries already have a low share of mismanaged waste – 6% in 2019 – and this share is projected to decrease further, to 1.3% by 2060, which relates to a decrease in the amount of mismanaged waste from 10 Mt in 2019 to 4 Mt in 2060.

The changes in waste management will be more substantial in non-OECD countries. Recycled waste will increase, albeit at a slower pace than in OECD countries. Recycling rates will increase from 10% in 2019 to 16% in 2060. As countries become wealthier, the shares of landfilled and incinerated waste are both projected to increase. However, the share of incineration in non-OECD countries remains less than half that of OECD countries, reflecting the high investment cost of this waste management category. While the significant improvements in waste management infrastructure and litter collection result in a decreasing share of mismanaged waste, the yearly amounts of mismanaged waste are still projected to double, from 79 Mt in 2019 to 153 Mt in 2060.

The increase in mismanaged waste in non-OECD countries is mostly driven by Africa and Asia (Figure 4.11). Economic growth in these regions leads to a strong increase in waste, but waste management systems do not evolve quickly enough to prevent mismanaged waste from increasing substantially. These projected amounts of mismanaged waste stress the urgent need to strengthen domestic policy measures and boost international co-operation further.

The evolution of waste management in the Baseline scenario takes into account the expected effects of current policies and existing trends in improvements to waste management. This explains why mismanaged waste increases much less rapidly than total plastics use and waste generation. To understand the effect of these waste management assumptions, the Frozen waste management policies scenario explores what would happen if there were no improvements in waste management beyond 2025 (Figure 4.12).3

The comparison between the Frozen and Baseline scenarios shows the importance of improvements in waste management systems for limiting the growth in mismanaged waste. If plastic waste management were to see no further improvements, recycling rates would remain limited to around 10% by 2060, while the Baseline scenario assumes a continued increase to more than 17%. Furthermore, the amount of plastic waste that would have to be landfilled by 2060 would increase significantly, putting even greater pressure on scarce land, especially near urban centres. But, perhaps most importantly, the amount of mismanaged plastics would increase to 269 Mt by 2060, compared to 153 Mt in the Baseline. In other words, the prolonged effects of existing policies (without any new policies to combat plastic waste), would be to avoid 116 Mt of plastic waste being mismanaged in 2060 – a more than 40% reduction.

Freezing the waste management categories at their 2025 levels in each region does not imply fixing the global shares. As growth in plastic waste generation is faster in countries with less developed waste management systems, their weight in global waste management shares increases. Thus, the share of global waste that is incinerated gradually declines in the Frozen scenario, and the share of mismanaged waste gradually increases. This emphasises the significant improvements that need to be made in plastic waste management systems in emerging and developing economies just to achieve the limited slowdown in global mismanaged waste growth projected in the Baseline. This will require sharing best practices and existing technologies to support rapidly developing countries in improving their waste management systems over time as their income grows.

The trade in plastic waste and scrap moves materials to countries with a comparative advantage in recycling plastic. This captures benefits derived from economies of scale and efficient and cheaper processing in the destination country, helps to secure inputs for high quality secondary plastics, and provides opportunities to fill cargo containers (when goods are shipped from one destination to another they can be empty on the way back) (Yamaguchi, 2021[12]; OECD, 2020[13]; Kellenberg, 2012[14]). However, there are concerns about possible negative impacts of the plastic waste trade, leading many countries to reconsider their trade policies and practices over the last few years (Yamaguchi, 2021[12]). These concerns stem from trade motivated by differences in environmental regulations and standards, the illegal trade in waste, and pollution caused by insufficient waste management capacities in the destination country, leading to leakage into the environment.

As a consequence, the international regulatory environment for transboundary trade in plastic waste has changed considerably in recent years (OECD, 2019[2]). Since 2015, traded plastic waste has declined, partly because China – and subsequently several other nations – have imposed restrictions on waste imports (Shi, Zhang and Chen, 2021[15]; Velis, 2014[16]). In addition, the Basel Convention – which regulates trade in plastic waste – has been amended out of concern for some of these impacts of plastics on the environment (Secretariat of the Basel Convention, 2020[17]). How this trade landscape will evolve in the coming years is uncertain and varies by region (Box 4.5). While the Baseline scenario assumes that current waste trade patterns will continue, this section investigates two extreme alternative baseline scenarios: (1) No waste trade scenario: strict policy measures eliminating all trade in plastic waste; and (2) 2015 Waste trade scenario: a return to 2015 trade patterns.

The extent to which changes in plastic waste trade affect global volumes of mismanaged waste and available scrap depends on the waste management systems of the exporting and importing countries. Although a large share of the traded volumes concerns recyclable materials and can thus contribute to scrap for secondary plastics production, some imported waste will be mismanaged and eventually leak to the environment. In line with the OECD Global Plastics Outlook Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options (OECD, 2022[1]), the modelling framework assumes that half of the traded plastic waste can be recycled, and that the other half end up in domestic waste streams, i.e. some is incinerated, some landfilled and some mismanaged, depending on the waste management system in the destination country (see Annex A).

Given the small volumes of waste traded inter-regionally, the improvements in waste management in the Baseline scenario, and the assumption that a significant share of the waste in the traded volumes can be recycled, the abolishment of plastic waste trade in the No waste trade scenario only slightly changes the total mismanaged waste in 2060 compared to the Baseline (a fall of less than half a percent, or less than 1 Mt), with most of the reductions occurring in the non-OECD Asian economies (Figure 4.13).4

The 2015 Waste trade scenario, which assumes higher trade volumes, projects a slight increase in global mismanaged waste by 2060 (Figure 4.13). The increase in China more than compensates the decrease in other non-OECD Asian economies. Given that waste management systems tend to be more developed in China than in the other non-OECD Asian economies, the net global effect on mismanaged waste is small: an increase of less than 1 Mt compared to the Baseline. Thus, while inter-regionally traded volumes double compared to the Baseline scenario, the global volume of mismanaged waste is projected to remain unchanged.

Thus, the changes in plastic waste trade regimes within the range given by these two scenarios – and under the assumption that half of the traded waste is recycled – will affect trade patterns. But only if trade and environmental policies go hand in hand and the imported waste is properly managed will the consequences for leakage be limited.5 More drastic changes to trade patterns, such as unlimited exports of plastic waste to countries with less developed waste management systems, i.e. waste dumping, would lead to significant increases in plastic leakage. Such a scenario would, however, be at odds with recent developments.

By ensuring the imported recyclable material is indeed recycled and not diverted to open dumps or other mismanaged treatments, increasing imports of plastic waste can increase domestic stocks of plastic scrap available for secondary plastics production. In the No waste trade scenario, the recyclable material is no longer exported, and thus the countries that export plastic waste in the Baseline scenario, including most OECD countries, increase their domestic scrap. The importers (including most non-OECD countries) are confronted with less scrap available for secondary plastics production. The global effect is roughly zero: the materials do not disappear but are treated in the exporter countries, where recycling facilities are at least as advanced as in the importer countries. However, given that this is a baseline scenario where no ambitious policies to boost secondary production are implemented, the additional scrap in OECD countries may not be turned into more secondary plastics, but instead may only lead to higher recycling loss rates (and thus higher recycling residues) when the scrap is discarded. Furthermore, recycling capacity constraints may imply that in the short run more recyclable material is discarded until new recycling capacity becomes available.

Global scrap availability is not independent of plastic waste trade. When the trade flow is diverted to regions with less developed waste management systems and specifically lower recycling rates, less scrap is retrieved from the waste stream. The alternative 2015 Waste trade scenario, which reverts trade flows to their 2015 patterns, suggests that developments between 2015 and 2019 may indeed have induced a decline in the global availability of scrap. In this scenario, more waste is exported to China, which has fairly high recycling rates and can better transform the waste into scrap (Figure 4.13). This increase more than outweighs the decrease in plastic scrap produced by other emerging economies in Asia. Such an increase in global scrap availability does not scale proportionally with the volume of traded waste because the higher exports of OECD countries lead to lower available scrap there. However, when the material is exported from an OECD country with lower recycling rates than China, then more scrap can be retrieved by export to China than when trade is restricted, and thus more plastics can be recycled.

Although the scenarios in this analysis are highly stylised, they shed light on how policies on the transboundary movement of plastic waste can drastically divert trading patterns with important implications both for regional recycling opportunities and plastic leakage into the environment. Specifically, if plastics trade were to be opened up to further divert plastic waste trade to countries with less waste management capacities, this would risk a greater increase of plastic leakage into the environment. It is therefore important to keep in mind that trade policies can drastically change the landscape of plastic waste in a relatively short period of time (which was the case for the introduction of Chinese import bans as well as the Basel Convention amendments on plastics), whereas developing recycling and waste management capacities is a long-term process, requiring investment and development plans, as well as inclusive frameworks to work with the informal sector in certain countries. To achieve a more circular use of plastics, trade policies and environmental policies need to go hand-in-hand in a co-ordinated fashion, so that any asymmetries do not result in reduced recycling rates or increased leakage into the environment.

As outlined in Chapter 3 of OECD Global Plastic Outlook: Economic drivers, environmental impacts and policy options (OECD, 2022[1]), the COVID-19 pandemic was estimated to have led to a reduction in global plastics use in the short term. This decrease results from the economic slowdown, which had a stronger effect than the increase in the use of plastics for personal protective equipment.

In the coming decades, while the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is projected to fade, it will nevertheless lead to a reduction in global plastic waste in the Baseline scenario compared to pre-pandemic waste projections (Figure 4.14). The effect on plastic waste in 2025 is much smaller than the effect on plastics use (Chapter 2), as a significant share of plastics lasts for many years. There are, however, concerns about the large share of plastics for personal protective equipment, especially face masks, that are either littered or leak into the environment (OECD, 2022[1]). The regional differences in changes in plastic waste roughly reflect the changes in plastics use.

Over time, the effects on plastic waste catch up with the effects on plastics use, and by 2060 reductions in plastics use and waste are similar. The Baseline projections for plastics use and waste are still below the pre-COVID projections in almost all countries, as the result of lower levels of economic activity over the long term.6 Assumptions about the speed of recovery from COVID-19 further affect these waste projections (Box 4.6).

The specific sectoral drivers – especially the different lifespans of plastics applications – affect how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic has consequences for projected plastic waste (Figure 4.15).7 Taken together (“Total” effect in Figure 4.15), the largest impacts on plastic waste occur around 2035 and gradually phase out afterwards. The type of polymer used also has an effect. In some cases, notably polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the effects on plastic waste have very small delays and largely follow the economic impacts, whereas polyvinyl chloride (PVC), for example, has a more staged effect as the various applications that use PVC (e.g. in construction) tend to have much longer lifespans. Regarding the applications, there is a huge time difference between plastic waste from packaging and waste from construction. The effects of the lifespan of plastics are much more visible in the projections for the applications than for the polymers, highlighting that most polymers are used in multiple applications, some with longer lifespans than others.


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← 1. Additional information on waste management modelling is provided in Annex A.

← 2. Landfilled waste implies an increased demand for suitable landfilling sites, putting additional pressure on land use. However, by taking the land density into account in the projection of the share of landfilling in the region, the largest increases in area required for landfilling are in regions that have relatively ample space available. However, landfilling often occurs close to city centres, which could still pose problems. Furthermore, the environmental implications of increased land use for waste management could not be taken into account in the analysis.

← 3. In particular, under this hypothetical scenario the shares of the different waste management categories are set constant beyond 2025, allowing for a three-year lag to account for the continued impact of current policies.

← 4. The change in global mismanaged waste depends on the relative difference in mismanagement shares across exporters and importers: the waste is still treated, but in a different location.

← 5. The environmental implications of other waste treatment methods also matter: if for example the exported waste is landfilled rather than incinerated in the destination country, there is no energy recovery and there is also potential for pollution.

← 6. While GDP growth rates fully recover, GDP levels remain somewhat below the Baseline projection; see (Dellink et al., 2021[19]).

← 7. While the Baseline scenario presented in this report includes the impacts of COVID-19 on economic activity, lack of robust data meant it was not linked to the impacts on particular types of plastics, apart from plastics for face masks and other personal protective equipment (see Chapter 3 in (OECD, 2022[1])).

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