OECD Says It's Time to Make Less Plastic

OECD Says It's Time to Make Less Plastic

Since the 1950s, humans have produced over 18.2 trillion pounds of plastic, equivalent to the weight of 25,000 Empire State Buildings. A new report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found only 9% of the 353 million tons of plastic produced in 2019 was recycled into new material -- the rest was either burned, put in landfills, or "mismanaged."

UC Santa Barbara: A clearer picture of plastics, 2017.

"Most plastics don't biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years," says Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer and professor at the University of Georgia. She is internationally recognized for her research on plastic waste in the ocean.

The new OECD study comes days ahead of a UN summit aimed at drafting a global treaty on plastic pollution and limiting its production, marking a shift away from strategies more focused on existing plastics, such as clean-up efforts.

PBS: How the Plastics Industry Used Recycling to Fend Off Bans, March 31, 2021.

Why This Matters

Plastics are highly detrimental to the environment, from their pollution-causing production processes to their inability to decompose after use. Plastic releases carbon emissions throughout its life cycle, starting with oil and gas extraction to create building blocks for the final product. Much of the petrochemical industry, including plastic production, is funded by oil companies and banks that also contribute to deforestation and biodiversity loss. Eventually, plastics may take over fossil fuels as the lead contributor to climate change in the next couple of decades.

The Story of Stuff Project: The Story of Plastic, April 21, 2021.

Why Recycling Isn't Working

When it comes to the plastic waste crisis, a lot of focus is placed on managing post-production waste, such as beach cleanup initiatives and recycling efforts. Unfortunately, these labors have been unsuccessful, partly because of the sheer amount of plastic waste produced annually and partly because of the lack of adequate recycling facilities. At least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments, specifically in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is roughly three times the size of France. And many US so-called recycling companies ship collected plastic waste to countries such as China, Thailand, and Cambodia, where it's not recycled; it's discarded into landfills.

Dealing with plastic waste after it is produced is proving to be an unsuccessful tactic, which is why many environmentalists are advocating for plastic production to be phased out.

Vox: Why 99% of ocean plastic pollution is "missing", April 27, 2021.

PBS: The Plastic Problem, November 27, 2019.