"Only 9 percent of the 9 billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled," the UN says in a report, as it calls on governments to consider banning or taxing single-use bags or plastic food containers.

A sphere made out of plastic bags simulates global contamination during the launch of the
A sphere made out of plastic bags simulates global contamination during the launch of the "Zero Percent Plastic" ecological campaign to reduce the use of plastic bags in Chile. (AFP)

Less than a 10th of all the plastic ever made has been recycled, and governments should consider banning or taxing single-use bags or food containers to stem a tide of pollution, a UN report said on Tuesday, to mark World Environment Day.

The study, billed as the most comprehensive review of government action to curb single-use plastics, said up to five trillion plastic bags were used worldwide each year. Spread out side-by-side, they would cover an area twice the size of France.

"The scourge of plastic has reached every corner of the Earth," Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, wrote in the report, compiled with the Indian government and launched along with the slogan 'If you can't reuse it, refuse it'.

"Only 9 percent of the 9 billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled," the report said. "Most ends up in landfills, dumps or in the environment."

Per capita, the US followed by Japan and the EU are the world's biggest sources of plastic waste. In absolute terms, China is the biggest offender, ahead of the EU and US.

TRT World's Patrick Fok reports from Hong Kong where a big trash problem has been worsened by the Chinese territory's reliance on plastics.

Effective strategies

On the upside, more than 60 countries had bans or charges on single-use plastics such as bags or polystyrene containers, according to Elisa Tonda, head of the UN Environment's Sustainable Lifestyle programme.

And there are signs of action to limit plastic pollution, which harms life in the oceans, contaminates soils and releases toxic chemicals when burnt.

"Targeted levies and bans - where properly planned and enforced - have been among the most effective strategies to limit overuse of disposable plastic products," the report said.

Cultural side-effects

Thirty percent of countries found sharp drops in plastic bag consumption in the first year after imposing restrictions, while 20 percent saw little or no change. But in half the cases, governments failed to gauge the effects of restrictions, the report said.

Among its recommendations, the report called for better sorting of waste and recycling, economic incentives to promote eco-friendly alternatives to plastics, education of consumers and promotion of reusable products.

The report also found other cultural side-effects.

In South Africa, plastic litter is jokingly referred to as "the new national flower". In Ireland, windblown plastic bags caught in trees are referred to as "witch's knickers".

Source: Reuters