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Waste Not
Congratulations! We’ve Marked Our First Plastic Overshoot Day

July 28, 2023 marks the point when plastic produced surpasses the planet’s capacity to manage it. By tracking this date, we can more clearly understand the problem; and hold governments, businesses and individuals to account for their role in it.

In May, Swiss NGO EA — Environmental Action released an eye-opening report that provided much-needed context for the stunning levels of plastic pollution we’re dealing with worldwide: Since the beginning of 2023, more than 40 percent of the world’s populations were living in areas where plastic waste generated has already exceeded the capacity to manage it.

As of today (July 28) — which has been dubbed the first Plastic Overshoot Day — that number has risen to 60 percent.

Plastic Overshoot Day marks the critical point when our collective demand for plastic surpasses the capabilities of waste-management systems to handle it effectively. Today, we acknowledge this pivotal moment along with the pressing challenges brought about by excessive plastic production and utilization, and inadequate waste-management practices and infrastructure. The consequences reverberate across ecosystems — with plastic pollution inundating our oceans, threatening wildlife and endangering human health.

By tracking this date, EA says we can more clearly define and understand the problem; and hold governments, businesses and individuals to account for their role in contributing to it.

“Our report is a reminder that the global plastic crisis is getting worse and that there is an increasing need for action,” said Sarah Perreard, co-CEO and Stakeholder Engagement Lead at EA. “Governmental action alone cannot rectify the plastic pollution crisis. We want the research and findings from our report to be an effective tool for corporations to use before introducing new plastic in a geography, and to advocate for an ambitious Global Plastics Treaty. Together, through collaborative efforts and decisive actions, we can overcome this crisis and build a future where Plastic Overshoot Days are a thing of the past.”

Since the report’s release in May, a first draft of a global plastics treaty has taken shape and will continue to be debated and fine-tuned at the next session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) in Nairobi in November.

Plastic Overshoot facts

  • 43 percent of global plastic waste is currently being mismanaged at the end of its life; in 2023, the total projected waste that will be mismanaged and will end up in nature is expected to reach over 68.6M tonnes.

  • The global average consumption of plastic per person per year is 20.9 kilos, with a factor of 50 between the lowest and the biggest consumers.

Each country has its own Plastic Overshoot Day, which is determined by the amount of plastic waste generated in the country vs its capacity to manage it (called its Mismanaged Waste Index) — ours in the US will fall on November 30. EA has established 10 country archetypes, 10 Country Archetypes have been defined, which represent countries based on:

  • The amount of plastic the population produces and uses

  • How well plastic is managed when it becomes waste

  • How much plastic waste the country exports

  • How much plastic waste the country imports, and

  • How well imported waste is managed once it arrives in the country.

10 polluter archetypes

Examples of archetypes include:

  • Transactors (9 percent) — countries that export a lot of their waste but also import a lot from neighboring countries. Through this exchange of waste, they have optimized their waste-management practices — resulting in a low volume of mismanaged waste and low risk of plastic leakage into the environment. Includes 17 countries in Europe; as well as Australia, Canada, Singapore and the UK.

  • Self-Sustainers (10 percent) — medium to high consumers of plastic that can manage their waste internally and do not rely heavily on exporting it. They use sustainable waste-management practices and infrastructure to handle their waste domestically. 22 countries — many of them island nations across Asia and the Caribbean, as well as China.

  • Strugglers (18 percent) — medium to high consumers of plastic that export little of their waste to other countries. Domestically, they face significant challenges in managing their waste and likely struggle with inadequate infrastructure, insufficient resources, or a lack of proper waste-management regulations and policies. 42 territories — including many in Africa, the Middle East and Asia; and many island nations.

  • Overloaders (3 percent) — high consumers of plastic, who export a significant amount of their waste. Their waste is generally well-managed. But unlike Transactors, the Overloaders — Barbados, Iceland, Israel, South Korea, Malta, Spain and the United States — do not import waste in exchange for the waste they export; this imbalance overloads the waste-management systems of other countries, likely creating mismanagement issues.

  • Toxic Exporters (5 percent) — 12 high-plastic-consuming countries (Belarus, Brunei, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, UAE and Uruguay) that often export their waste to places that do not have proper waste-management infrastructure. Plastic pollution in many countries is impacted by mismanaged waste from Toxic Exporters.

  • Waste Sponges (25 percent) — 42 low plastic-consuming countries across Africa and Asia, eastern Europe and the Middle East that are making efforts to address the global waste crisis absorbing waste from other countries but are struggling to manage this imported waste in addition to their own.

  • Waste Saviors (4 percent) — 9 moderate plastic-consuming countries (Costa Rica, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Slovak Republic and Sweden) that manage their waste relatively well and assist in managing waste from other countries, which has an overall positive influence on the global waste crisis.

Where do we go from here?

EA provides tailored recommendations for each archetype. But the organization’s 5 broad recommendations for pulling ourselves out from under the weight of our own plastic waste are as follows:

  • Global plastic production must be capped and gradually reduced. Despite current pledges and waste-management capacity increases, planned production increases will triple plastic pollution by 2040. Production-capacity capping is necessary to reduce plastic pollution over time.

  • Plastics not designed for circular use must be phased out. Circular-economy solutions, applied at scale, can reduce annual volumes of plastic pollution by at least 80 percent by 2040 compared to business as usual.

  • To ensure participation from all countries, dedicated financial mechanisms and capacity-building must be in place to enable the development and implementation of national legislation and action plans.

  • Governments and businesses must be held accountable through mandatory disclosure and reporting. Businesses, for instance, must shift from disclosing their input of waste (e.g., “100 percent of our plastics are recyclable”) to disclosing their output of waste and its fate (e.g., “27 percent of our plastic is mismanaged and ends up in the environment”).

  • Global North countries that export their waste to the Global South must be held accountable for supporting infrastructure development in importing countries by at least the volume they export annually.

As John Duncan, Global Lead of WWF’s No Plastics in Nature initiative, told edie: “For too long, the inequalities inherent in the current plastics system have kept the plastic pollution problem out-of-sight and out-of-mind for many; with the social, economic and ecological burden being borne by lower-income countries and poorer communities.”

A recent Circle Economy report on the viability of a worldwide shift to a circular-economic system speaks to this Global North bias, in that the majority of research and planning to date around a circular shift fail to address the impact of circular interventions on people in the Global South (many of the above-mentioned “Waste Sponges” — the archetype making up the biggest part of the mix, at 25 percent) — who are undeniably left to deal with the fallout of broken systems and processes across the Global North, as we have seen already with the climate crisis and other forms of industrial pollution.

Both the public and private sector efforts are working to address this disparity. For example, NextWave Plastics — which is working to build commercially viable supply chains that enable non-virgin plastic material to be easily integrated into products and packaging — has developed a social responsibility framework that includes protections for informal waste collectors; and an alliance of industry stakeholders have called on policymakers to ensure the forthcoming plastics treaty includes crucial perspectives from those on the front lines tackling plastic waste worldwide.