Last updated: 28 Sep 2022

In 2020, the world produced 367 million metric tons of plastic waste, a number that is set to exponentially increase in the coming years. While reducing the generation of plastic waste in the first place is essential, efforts to manage and dispose of the existing waste is crucial to address the plastic crisis. This page is part of our Plastics and the Environment series, a set of online resources on the plastics crisis, its impact on people and the environment, and international cooperation to address this global problem. They include resources and news from organizations in Geneva and beyond, including UN-system organizations and other IOs, governmental authorities, civil society organizations, academic institutions and journals, and renowned newspapers.

A Glimpse on Global Plastic Waste

According to the OECD Global Plastic Outlook, the world generated 353 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2019, a number which has more than doubled since 2000. Many parts of the world are not equipped to deal with the large amount of plastic waste they generate or import from aboard. According to the UNEP Global Waste Management Outlook, 3 billion people do not have access to controlled disposal services for solid waste, and 2 billion people still lack access to regular waste collection. Therefore, a large portion of plastic waste is either littered or inadequately disposed. Of all plastics produced since the 1950, nearly 80% ended up in the environment or in landfills. With no changes in the way we produce, consume and dispose of plastic, another 33 billion tonnes of plastic is expected to accumulate on the planet by 2050.

In terms of global governance, the Basel Convention is the key international instrument to regulate transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal; the Secretariat is based in Geneva. In 2019, Parties to the Convention agreed to add plastic waste under the convention, making it the first international agreement to directly address the issue of plastic pollution.

Environmentally Sound Management of Plastic Waste

While avoiding the generation of plastic waste is overall preferable, environmentally sound management of plastic waste, once it is generated, is essential to protect human health and the environment. Without proper collection and disposal system, plastic contaminate the air, soil and water, thus causing harm to ecosystems and people. Since the adoption of the plastic waste amendments, the Basel Convention provides guidance for better management of plastic waste.

Plastic Waste Trade

As the amount of plastic waste generated has exponentially increased, so has the global trade of plastic waste. In 2018, about 8 million metric tonnes of plastic waste were traded internationally, amounting for around 3.3 billion USD. With lower energy and labour costs, countries in the Global South are often on the receiving end of such trade. However, an estimates 5 to 20% of imported scraps in these countries have no market value and ends up in landfills or incinerated, leading to air, soil and water pollution. Even when recycled, it is often done so in low-cost facilities with poor conditions, posing risks to workers’ and local communities’ health and to the environment. Since January 2021, the Basel Convention regulates global plastic waste trade with the entry into force of the Plastic Amendments.

Source: GRID-Arendal, 2019.

Recycling

Since the 1950s, an estimated 9% of all plastic produced by humanity has been recycled. While there has been an increased interest in and development of plastic recycling systems and facilities, still only 14% of plastic waste is currently being collected for recycling. As plastic disposal in landfill and burning has damaging consequences on human and environmental health, recycling is increasing seen as having huge potential to tackle the plastic crisis. However, plastic recycling presents many challenges due to the nature of the material itself. Meanwhile, relying on recycling alone is not sufficient to solve the plastic crisis and address the full impacts of plastics across the value chain.

More on the Plastics Crisis

Our special series “Plastics and the Environment” provides resources on the status of the global plastic pollution, its impact on people and the environment, and international cooperation to address the plastics crisis.