In the absence of bold new policies, the annual production of fossil-fuel-based plastics is set to top 1.2 billion tonnes by 2060 and waste to exceed one billion tonnes, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Plastic production is expected to grow faster than the one of most raw materials. The growth will be fastest in developing and emerging countries in Africa and Asia, although the 38 OECD members will still produce much more plastic waste per person (238 kg per year on average) in 2060 than non-OECD countries (77 kg).

Even with aggressive action to cut demand and improve efficiencies, plastic production would almost double in less than 40 years, the international organisation projects. However, such globally coordinated policies could hugely boost the share of future plastic waste that is recycled, from 12 to 40 percent.

If we want a world that is free of plastic pollution, in line with the ambitions of the United Nations Environment Assembly, we will need to take much more stringent and globally co-ordinated action,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said.

Alarm over plastics pollution

There is increasing international alarm over volume and omnipresence of plastics pollution, and its impact. Infiltrating the most remote and otherwise pristine regions of the planet, microplastics have been discovered inside fish in the deepest recesses of the ocean and locked inside Arctic ice. The debris is estimated to cause the deaths of more than a million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals each year. "Plastic pollution is one of the great environmental challenges of the 21st century, causing wide-ranging damage to ecosystems and human health," Mathias Cormann added.

Since the 1950s, roughly 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced with more than 60 percent of that tossed into landfills, burned or dumped directly into rivers and oceans.

Some 460 million tonnes of plastics were used in 2019, twice as much as 20 years earlier. The amount of plastic waste has also nearly doubled, exceeding 350 million tonnes, with less than 10 percent of it recycled.

Coordinated policies could strongly increase recycling

The report contrasts a business-as-usual trajectory with the benefits of more ambitious global policies of reduced plastic use and pollution. Driven by economic growth and an expanding population, plastics production is set to increase under either scenario, the OECD warns. Where policies can make a huge difference is in the handling of waste.

The report looks at the impact of two potential scenarios. The first, a regional action scenario comprising a mix of fiscal and regulatory policies primarily in OECD countries could decrease plastic waste by almost a fifth and more than halve plastic leakage into the environment without a substantial impact on global GDP, which would be lower by 0.3% by 2060. The second, a global action scenario comprising more stringent policies implemented worldwide, could decrease plastic waste by a third and almost completely eliminate plastic leakage to the environment while lowering global GDP by an estimated 0.8%.

Currently, nearly 100 million tonnes of plastic waste is either mismanaged or allowed to leak into the environment. "Co-ordinated and ambitious global efforts can almost eliminate plastic pollution by 2060," the report concludes.

According to the OECD, policies to reduce the environmental impacts of plastics and encourage a more circular use of them should include: taxes on plastics, including on plastic packaging; incentives to reuse and repair plastic items; targets for recycled content in new plastic products; extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes; improved waste management infrastructure; increased litter collection rates.

Earlier this year, the United Nations set in motion a process to develop an internationally binding treaty to limit plastic pollution.