World Environment Day 2022: how do we tackle the plastic problem?

June 5 is marked annually by the UN to stress the importance of protecting the environment

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Two decades ago, the world was producing just half the amount of plastic waste it does today.

Yet, despite efforts by environmentalists, only 9 per cent of plastic waste is successfully recycled, according to the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report.

June 5 is the UN World Environment Day, marked each year to highlight the importance of the environment.

The majority of plastic waste ends up being dumped in giant landfill sites, burnt or left to pollute the environment.

Stricter policies needed

The OECD's first Global Plastics Outlook report shows that with populations growing and more people using and discarding the material, current policies to stop it from leaking into the environment are working.

The average amount of plastic waste generated by one person each year varies from 221 kilograms in the US and 114kg in European OECD countries, to 69kg in Japan and South Korea.

Often the main problem is poorly disposed of so-called macroplastics, such as plastic bottles, but microplastics are another major problem, which can leak into the food chain. Examples of microplastics are fibres from synthetic textiles, or microbeads found in personal hygiene products.

According to UN figures, plastic pollution in the 1950s totaled two million tonnes. By 2017 it had risen to 348 million tonnes. It is a global industry valued at $522.6 billion.

That is expected to double by 2040.

In March, heads of state, environment ministers and other representatives from 175 nations endorsed a resolution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi to curb plastic pollution. The intention was to forge a legally binding agreement that would tackle the problem by the end of 2024.

Rivers and coastlines

About 80 per cent of plastic in seas gets there via rivers and coastlines, according to Our World In Data. The rest comes from marine activities such as fishing.

Studies have suggested that just a handful of rivers can be blamed for the majority of plastic pollution entering oceans, with between 60 to 90 per cent of plastics coming from just 10 rivers.

Asian rivers account for an estimated 80 per cent of ocean plastics, with the Philippines being responsible for about 30 per cent of the world's total.

The Philippines' high contribution may be due to the amount of coastline it has, with most of its population living by or near the sea.

The OECD report indicates that to reduce the amount of plastic entering oceans the problem of waste mismanagement needs to be tackled.

Wealthier nations either incinerate or recycle their waste, or it gets sent to landfills that are well managed. Lower-income countries do not have this system, meaning their waste is more likely to end up badly managed and polluting the environment.

OECD facts on plastic waste:

  • Plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years, driven by growth in emerging markets. Global plastic production doubled from 2000 to 2019 to reach 460 million tonnes. Plastics account for 3.4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Global plastic waste generation more than doubled from 2000 to 2019, to 353 million tonnes. Nearly two thirds of plastic waste comes from plastics with lifetimes of under five years, with 40 per cent coming from packaging, 12 per cent from consumer goods and 11 per cent from clothing and textiles.
  • Only 9 per cent of plastic waste is recycled — 15 per cent is collected for recycling but 40 per cent of that is disposed of as residues. Another 19 per cent is incinerated, 50 per cent ends up in landfills and 22 per cent evades waste management systems and goes into uncontrolled dumpsites, is burnt in open pits or ends up in terrestrial or aquatic environments, especially in poorer countries.
  • In 2019, 6.1 million tonnes of plastic waste leaked into aquatic environments and 1.7 million tonnes flowed into oceans. There is now an estimated 30 million tonnes of plastic waste in seas and oceans, and a further 109 million tonnes has accumulated in rivers.
Updated: June 05, 2022, 9:13 AM