Executive Summary

The Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options offers a unique quantified picture of the full lifecycle of plastics globally, including production, consumption, waste, recycling, disposal, leakage and greenhouse gas emissions. Five key findings summarize the current challenges while four critical levers are put forward to make the plastics lifecycle more circular.

  • The current plastics lifecycle is far from circular. Globally, the annual production of plastics has doubled, soaring from 234 million tonnes (Mt) in 2000 to 460 Mt in 2019. Plastic waste has more than doubled, from 156 Mt in 2000 to 353 Mt in 2019. After taking into account losses during recycling, only 9% of plastic waste was ultimately recycled, while 19% was incinerated and almost 50% went to sanitary landfills. The remaining 22% was disposed of in uncontrolled dumpsites, burned in open pits or leaked into the environment.

  • COVID-19 increased single-use plastic waste, though plastics use fell overall. The lockdowns and decline in economic activity during 2020 reduced plastics use by 2.2% from 2019 levels. However, the increase in the use of protective personal equipment and single-use plastics has exacerbated plastic littering. As the economy rebounds, plastics use is projected to pick up again, leading to a renewed growth of plastic waste and related environmental pressures.

  • Mismanaged plastic waste is the main source of macroplastic leakage. In 2019 alone, 22 Mt of plastic materials leaked into the environment. Macroplastics account for 88% of plastic leakage, mainly resulting from inadequate collection and disposal. Microplastics, polymers with a diameter smaller than 5 mm, account for the remaining 12%, coming from a range of sources such as tyre abrasion, brake wear or textile washing. The documented presence of these small particles in freshwater and terrestrial environments, as well as in several food and beverage streams, suggests that microplastics contribute substantially to the exposure of ecosystems and humans to leaked plastics and their related risks.

  • Significant stocks of plastics have already accumulated in aquatic environments, with 109 Mt of plastics accumulated in rivers, and 30 Mt in the ocean. In 2019 alone, 6.1 Mt of plastic waste leaked into rivers, lakes and the ocean. The build-up of plastics in rivers implies that leakage into the ocean will continue for decades to come even if mismanaged plastic waste was significantly reduced. Furthermore, cleaning up these plastics is becoming more difficult and costly as plastics fragment into ever smaller particles.

  • The carbon footprint of the plastics lifecycle is significant. Plastics have a significant carbon footprint, contributing 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions throughout their lifecycle. In 2019, plastics generated 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, with 90% coming from their production and conversion from fossil fuels. Closing material loops could reduce this footprint substantially.

  • Develop recycled plastics markets by combining push and pull policies. While global production of secondary plastics from recycling has more than quadrupled in the last two decades, they are still only 6% of the total feedstock. Since secondary plastics are mainly considered substitutes for primary plastics, rather than a valuable resource in their own right, the secondary plastics market remains small and vulnerable. Some countries have successfully strengthened their markets by “pushing” secondary plastics supply – for example, through extended producer responsibility schemes – as well as “pulling” demand via recycled content targets. The recent decoupling of prices for primary and secondary polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in Europe and increasing innovation in recycling technologies are positive signs that the combination of these policies is working.

  • Boost innovation for a more circular plastics lifecycle. Innovation can deliver significant environmental benefits – by reducing the amount of primary plastics needed, prolonging the useful life of products and facilitating recycling. This report shows that patented environmental plastics technologies increased more than threefold between 1990 and 2017. Yet innovation in waste prevention and recycling makes up only 1.2% of all plastics-related innovation. More ambitious policies are needed including a combination of investments in innovation and interventions aimed at increasing demand for circular solutions while restraining plastics consumption overall.

  • Strengthen the ambition of domestic public policies. An inventory of key regulatory and economic instruments in 50 OECD, emerging and developing countries developed for this report suggests that the current plastics policy landscape is fragmented and can be strengthened significantly. Only 13 countries from the inventory have national policy instruments in place that provide direct financial incentives to sort plastic waste at source. Only 25 of the countries in the inventory have effectively implemented well-known instruments that encourage recycling, such as national landfill and incineration taxes. Meanwhile, globally more than 120 countries have bans and taxes on single-use plastic items, but most are limited to plastic bags or other small-volume items. This means that these instruments are mainly effective in reducing littering, rather than restraining overall consumption of plastics. A policy roadmap is proposed for countries to reduce the leakage of macroplastics. It involves three increasingly ambitious phases:

    • Close leakage pathways. Build sanitary waste management infrastructure, organise waste collection and structurally reduce plastics littering by enlarging the scope of anti-littering policies (bans or taxes of frequently littered items) and enhancing implementation of legislation.

    • Create incentives for recycling and enhance sorting at source. The required measures include extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, landfill taxes and incineration taxes, as well as deposit-refund and pay-as-you-throw schemes.

    • Restrain demand and optimise design to make plastic value chains more circular and recycled plastics more price competitive. Instruments such as plastics taxes and recycled content targets can create financial incentives to reduce use and foster circularity. Their impact could be improved considerably by extending them to more product types and more countries.

  • Strengthen international co-operation to make plastics value chains more circular and achieve net zero plastic leakage. Considering global value chains and international trade in plastics, aligning design approaches and the regulation of chemical substances across countries will be key to improving the circularity of plastics globally. Moreover, with mismanaged waste a widespread problem, especially in developing countries, major investments in basic waste management infrastructure are needed. To finance the required estimated costs of EUR 25 billion a year in low and middle-income countries, all available sources of funding will need to be mobilised, including official development assistance which currently covers only 2% of the financing needs. Efficient use of such investments will also require effective legal frameworks to enforce disposal obligations.


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Revised version, April 2022

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