Plastic pollution – Pathways to net zero
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Plastic pollution – a new way of measuring hope on the path to net zero

Plastic pollution continues to be a key sustainability challenge for the world. Our latest report investigates different aspects of plastic pollution to share our research and allow for better understanding of this complicated issue, where taking action is often not as straightforward as it seems.

Where are we now?

There is no revelation in the notion that plastic is all around us. The global economy has become heavily plastic reliant, which can be seen in the numbers that are showcased in our report. To illustrate the current situation and try to make predictions for the future we developed a measurement – the Plastic Kaya Identity – which involves human population and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. This measurement also introduces plastic usage intensity of GDP, which refers to the amount of plastic used in relation to GDP, and is a figure that is increasing. Between 1960 and 2020 it rose by almost 5,000%. At the same time, real GDP grew by approximately 650% and the population more than doubled, increasing by approximately 160%. What does this mean? For every dollar of GDP added to global economy, the data suggests that more and more plastic was required to make it happen.

Increase in plastic usage since 1960

Source: OECD, UN, World Bank, Credit Suisse

What about plastic pollution?

Mismanaged plastic waste becomes plastic pollution. Each year more than 350 million metric tons of plastic become plastic waste, of which approximately 80 million metric tons (22%) is mismanaged worldwide.

350 million metric tones of plastic becomes plastic waste

Source: OECD, Credit Suisse

What happens to the rest?

Sanitary landfills collect approximately 46%, controlled incineration accounts for a further 17% and recycling totals 15%. This creates a social and environmental cost – at least USD 300 billion per annum or, according to certain estimates, up to USD 1,500 billion per annum. This amount is not equally distributed, as can be seen in a comparison of OECD and non-OECD countries. While both use approximately the same amount of plastic per year, the symmetry dissolves when the data is viewed on a per capita basis, with the global average of 60 kg per person per year masking the OECD’s huge 155 kg figure and the non-OECD’s 40 kg. More alarming differences occur when comparing plastic pollution. Of the approximately 80 million tons of mismanaged plastic, almost 70 million tons (88%) originates from non-OECD counties.

Non-OECD countries mismanage a greater percentage of plastic waste than OECD countries

Source: OECD, Credit Suisse

What could happen next? The path to net zero.

Without additional policy action by 2060 there could be more plastic metric tonnage than whale biomass in the sea, which is more accurate than the infamous 2016 statement from the Ellen MacArthur foundation that, by 2050, there would be more plastic than fish in the sea as measured by metric tonnage. At the same time, the data shows that we are improving our plastic pollution solutions. Over the last decade, mismanaged plastic as a proportion of total plastic waste has declined – in the OECD by 60% and in non-OECD countries by 30%. In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a landmark resolution and initiated negotiations for a global plastics treaty to end plastic pollution in what could be the most significant multilateral proposal since the Paris Agreement in 2015. Plans call for the resolution to become a legally binding treaty by 2024.

Without additional policy action by 2060 there could be more plastic metric tonnage than whale biomas in the sea

Source: OECD, Credit Suisse

Using the Plastic Kaya Identity, we have developed three forecasting frameworks that extend out to 2060:

  • A baseline scenario extends current trends and does not assume additional policy action
  • A moderately ambitious scenario includes mitigating actions such as a regional plastic tax to constrain demand and adaptation actions to close leakage pathways
  • A highly ambitious scenario that envisages mitigating actions such as global plastic taxation and a global extended producer responsibility strategy to increase product durability and extend lifecycles across packaging, electronics and motor vehicles. Adaptation elements include significant investment in recycling, mixed waste collection and litter collection.

Plastic waste forecasts 2019 - 2060

Source: Credit Suisse Research 

In the report we explore further adaptation and mitigation strategies, which can sometimes create unexpected outcomes that are not always better for people and the planet. For example, mandating a reduction in plastic food packaging could lead to greater food spoilage. In a 2018 study, The Danish Environmental Protection Agency found that a cotton tote bag would need to be used over 20,000 times to have an equivalent climate impact to an LDPE plastic carrier bag. As this is a very complex topic, we would like to invite you to read the full version of the report, where we dive deeper into the intricacies of different adaptation and mitigation strategies.