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What is the Global Plastic Debt?

Much has been said about the plastic pollution crisis, but limited references have taken a specific look at understanding how gargantuan the problem of decades of accumulated plastic will be to clean up. In this Technical Note, the Plastic Credit Exchange (PCX) takes a stab at what we define and understand to be the Global Plastic Debt. This metric is intended to present a real-time assessment of how much plastic exists both in circulation and accumulated in the environment today that needs to be responsibly managed. PCX presents the information as an estimated matter of fact and does not attempt, at least for now, to prescribe how to provide a solution to this value.

PCX defines “Global Plastic Debt” as the total amount of plastic that has been produced and remains present in the environment or in circulation which will need to be cleaned up. This estimation includes plastic already in nature and the plastics in circulation that, if not properly managed, could leak into the environment.

PCX finds the need to provide this definition since the Global Plastic Debt is a concept that is referred to but not formally defined or quantified. PCX recognizes that there are several papers and studies that look into similar terms such as the use of mismanaged plastics or total amount of plastic discarded. However, PCX presents a simplified definition that would be able to provide a metric for the magnitude of the task to clean up that we face to-date. PCX highlights that every day plastic enters the environment and is a clear and present danger to people and the planet.

Here is a run-through of the data presented as the Global Plastic Debt:

PCX will be presenting the Global Plastic Debt as a running counter at the PCX website. Every minute, plastic goes into the environment. For reference, the calculation is based on this:

Global Plastic Debt to-date =

Global Plastic Debt by Nov 2021 (8,437,019,836) + (Annual Plastic Production – Plastic lost to processing conversion) * (days covered since Nov 30, 2021) / 365 days in a year


PCX recognizes that there are several models and studies which have been done to estimate similar concepts. To benchmark this simplified calculation, PCX refers to the same work by Geyer, Jambeck and Law (2017) presenting a modeled cumulative plastic waste generation and disposal. PCX refers to the visual representation provided and estimates the global plastic debt based on the paper. The close counterpart of PCX’s global plastic debt to the paper is the sum of All Waste Discarded and All Waste Incinerated. Based on the study, Geyer, Jambeck and Law (2017) estimates the global plastic debt to be 7,775,947,281 tons by the end of 2020 using a non-linear model. PCX’s calculation estimates the plastic debt as 8,137,280,000 tons by the same period, December 2020.

Figure 1. Cumulative plastic waste generation and disposal from Geyer, Jambeck and Law (2017)

There is a need to provide a quantification of the plastic debt that we need to take responsibility for. PCX presents a simplified version which is dependent on the assumptions that were referred to in the available studies and consistent with United Nations Environment Program references. These assumptions may have already changed or have been disrupted by the ongoing pandemic and can be refined further through working with partners in the academe and providing inputs from our industry experiences.

List of Assumptions:

PCX summarizes the major assumptions used in the calculations and the rationale with the use of these reported estimates and numbers.

  1. The total plastics produced to December 2017 of 8.3 billion tons is assumed as the beginning balance for the calculation.

  2. The calculations assume a recycling rate of 9% and a conversion rate of 80% (means that the recycled plastic is only 80% of the input material, 20% is lost through the process and therefore no longer available to be taken responsibility for in plastic waste form).

  3. The calculations assume that 12% was lost historically already due to burning whether through incineration, energy recovery or material recovery processes and are therefore no longer available to be taken responsibility for in plastic waste form. From December 2021 onwards, this 12% was used as a high estimate as plastics that may still be recoverable/salvageable from low temperature burning.

  4. The annual introduction of plastic accounted for 380 million tons from the same paper. The ticker calculation is updated daily.

  5. The total production of plastic reported annually was linearly distributed over 365 days in a year.

PCX continues to refine this analysis to reflect more recent information and is keen to connect with academic and industry researchers to present as close to real-time measurements and forecasts as possible.

PCX presents the analysis through this Technical Note as detailed as possible. PCX is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for the results obtained from the use of this information especially when taken out of context. All information in this Technical Note is provided “as is” or “as presented”. Further updates may be provided and disclosed as much as possible. PCX also welcomes inputs and suggestions on this assessment and commits to continue to refine these estimates and provide meaningful solutions.

For any questions or suggestions, reach out to us at

Visit this article on PCX's website here.


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