The economics of plastic pollution

Plastic became popular in the 1950’s due to its flexibility, low weight, and durability. It also had a low first cost when compared to other manufacturing materials. Its durability in particular makes it the ideal material for making everything from airplanes to water bottles. That durability however also results in plastic becoming a problem for human health and for our planet. This is especially true when plastic is used to manufacture single-use items that are used by consumers for only a matter of minutes before entering the waste stream. As waste, the majority of plastic is either disposed of in landfills or is incinerated. A large amount however also escapes into our environment.

Plastic imposes costs on society at each step in the life cycle of plastic. Starting at raw material extraction, at refinement, to product manufacturing and finally on disposal, costs are incurred by individuals. The level of those lifetime costs are estimated to be ten times the first estimated cost of plastic by the World Fund for Wildlife. Increased costs include,

  • Increased costs of waste management – every year it costs more than US $32 billion, to collect, sort, dispose and recycle the huge quantities of plastic waste generated.
  • Governments, NGOs and concerned citizens incur significant costs from undertaking clean-up activities to remove the waste, as high as US$15 billion per year.
  • Marine plastic pollution can create huge economic costs in the form of gross domestic product (GDP) reductions, estimated at up to US$7 billion for 2018 alone. This is driven by the loss in revenue from tourism, fishing, aquaculture and others. 
  • Marginalised communities disproportionately bear the cost of the plastic lifecycle. Incineration plants and oil and gas refineries are built predominantly in low-income and marginalised communities, exposing them to increased health and economic risks. Informal waste pickers are exposed to significant health risks throughout the plastic waste processing cycle. Climate change, which the plastics lifecycle is contributing to, also disproportionately affects disadvantaged groups.

The lifetime cost of the plastic produced just in 2019 is estimated to be at least US$3.7 trillion, which is greater than the GDP of India. Disturbingly, this figure is an underestimate. That estimate does not take into account the increased costs of healthcare, terrestrial impacts of plastic and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from uncontrolled plastic waste, all of which are not fully quantifiable today.

Without significant action, plastic production is expected to more than double by 2040 and plastic pollution in the ocean is expected to triple. These increases will result in a corresponding rise in the cost imposed on society. The societal lifetime costs of the projected virgin plastic produced in 2040 (lifetime cost of plastic excluding the market cost) could reach more than US$7.1 trillion, equivalent to approximately 85% of global spending on healthcare in 2018 and greater than the GDP of Germany, Canada, and Australia in 2019 combined. At that point, plastic would account for up to 20% of the entire global carbon budget and accelerate the climate crisis.

For further information, please read Plastics: The Costs to Society, The Environment and The Economy, 2021 Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)