Plastics: The costs to society, the environment and the economy

Executive Summary

Plastic plays many important roles, but its production, use and disposal impose countless negative impacts on society, with plastic pollution among the most pressing environmental issues of today.1 Due to its seemingly cheap price and various uses, plastic has been increasingly used across millions of applications. As a result, plastic production has almost doubled over the past two decades.2 The production of this plastic releases chemical pollutants and greenhouse gases (GHG) that can cause adverse health effects in humans and contribute to climate change.3,4 Given that much of the plastic produced is designed to be used only once,5 increasing plastic production will inevitably result in increases in plastic waste. This waste is either disposed of via processes that can also release chemical pollutants and contribute to climate change, or leaks into the environment, becoming plastic pollution. Today, more than 11 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year.6 Pollution in the ocean poses a threat to marine life,7 impacting the provision of ecosystem services8 and damaging key economic industries such as fisheries and tourism.9 

These impacts generate significant costs for society that are not accounted for in plastic’s market price: the lifetime10 cost of the plastic produced in 2019 will be at least US$3.7 trillion (+/-US$1 trillion)11 and more than the GDP of India.12 Plastic appears to be a relatively cheap material when looking at the market price primary plastic producers pay for virgin plastic,13 In 2019, the cost was just over US$1,000 per tonne.14 However, this price fails to account for the full cost imposed across the plastic lifecycle. For example, the cost of GHG emissions from across the plastic lifecycle amounts to more than US$171 billion.15 Furthermore, the management of plastic waste cost more than US$32 billion,16 to collect, sort, dispose and recycle the huge quantities of plastic waste generated in 2019 alone.17 Plastic takes hundreds to thousands of years to fully degrade and as it degrades, it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles making it hard to recover and remove plastic from the environment. Plastic will therefore remain in the environment to incur further costs. For example, it is estimated that the plastic produced in 2019 that becomes marine plastic pollution will incur a cost of US$3.1 trillion (+/-US$1 trillion) over its lifetime as a result of the reduction in ecosystem services provided by marine ecosystems.18 There are also additional costs incurred from clean-up activities. 

At the same time, a lack of data prevents cost estimates for all the negative impacts of plastic, so the true lifetime cost of plastic is even higher than the current estimate suggests. There are data gaps and limitations in understanding when it comes to the size and extent of the damage caused by the plastic pollution crisis. Therefore, the current estimate is the lower bound of the full cost imposed by the plastic lifecycle. 

Without significant action, plastic production is expected to significantly increase, resulting 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 (+/-US$2.2 trillion), equivalent to approximately 85% of global spending on health in 2018 and greater than the GDP of Germany, Canada, and Australia in 2019 combined.19 Plastic production is expected to more than double by 2040 and plastic pollution in the ocean is expected to triple.20 At that point, plastic would account for up to 20% of the entire global carbon budget21 and accelerate the climate crisis. 

Many of the necessary global actions to tackle the plastic crisis are known, but current initiatives lack the necessary scale to drive systemic change, while regulatory approaches have been heterogenous and scattered, failing to target the fundamental problem drivers. Leading organisations 22,23,24 have proposed circular economy approaches to tackle the plastic crisis aiming to keep plastic within the economy and out of the environment. These approaches can effectively reduce the negative impacts of plastic, including reducing the annual volume of plastic entering oceans by 80% and GHG emissions by 25%.25 However, the financial and technical resources required to undertake the overhaul in systems are preventing governments from acting. At the same time, there is currently no feedback loop from the adverse aspects of the plastic system because the lifetime cost of plastic is not fully accounted for in the market price. Therefore, there is a lack of incentive to implement the kinds of systemic changes required. The lack of comprehensive data also limits governments’ understanding of the plastic crisis and ability to make informed decisions. Instead of taking a lifecycle approach, government efforts have often only tackled one stage of the plastic lifecycle or focused on a too narrow scope, such as banning single-use plastic bags.26 

The transboundary nature of plastic requires a truly global response to effectively tackle the crisis, however, there is currently a notable lack of global coordination in plastic action. Plastic is transboundary in nature with the lifecycle of one item often split across various countries. Extraction of raw materials often happens in one country, conversion into plastic products in another, consumption in another, and waste management in another. Plastic pollution is also not constrained by national boundaries, because it migrates via water and air currents and settles at the seafloor. Therefore, a global response is needed to tackle the global plastic crisis. However, there is currently no global instrument established to specifically prevent marine plastic pollution or tackle plastic across its lifecycle.27 

In recognition of these challenges, there are growing calls from civil society, companies and financial institutions to establish a new global treaty on marine plastic pollution. Such a treaty would enable governments to tackle the plastic crisis and reduce the cost that plastic imposes on society. A global treaty could provide a well-designed framework encompassing global coordination on definitions, policies, reporting, and implementation support to accelerate the transition to a circular economy for plastic. If developed effectively, it will act as a legally binding instrument that ensures accountability, encouraging and enabling countries to take the necessary steps to tackle the plastic crisis. Seventy five leading companies from across the plastics value chain have endorsed the Business Call for a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution28. More than 2.1 million people from around the world have signed a WWF petition calling for a global treaty on marine plastic pollution.29 Governments are beginning to respond. As of August 2021, a majority of the UN member states (104 countries) have explicitly called for a new global agreement.30 For a new treaty to be established, governments will have to start negotiations through the adoption of a formal negotiation mandate at the 5th session of the UN Environment Assembly in February 2022.

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World Wildlife Fund

September 6, 2021
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