Our team did a piece of research to uncover the true cost of plastic, and we wouldn’t want you to miss the key facts & stats. So here is a quick recap:
- the lifetime cost of plastic is 10x its market value
- the hidden cost of plastic to our society, environment & economy stems from four areas defined in a WWF report: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, health, waste management, and unmanaged waste.
- plastic generates more GHGs than the entire amount of annual emissions from the aviation and shipping industries combined.
- consuming food and beverages may result in weekly ingestion of approximately 5 grams of plastic, the equivalent of a credit card.
- 41% of packaging is mismanaged & 47% of mismanaged packaging ends up in the ocean.
Beyond the shelf price, how much is our plastic habit costing the planet and our health?
Plastic is one of the most popular, versatile and abundant materials today. The miracle of plastic is its ability to solve many design problems, from durability to hygiene or flexibility. However, its beneficial properties are also its flaws. As plastic has become the answer to every logistical problem, from construction to packaging, the industry has grown tenfold.
Vincent Doumeizel, Senior Advisor for the United Nations Global Compact, examined closely the plastic industry:
“In the last 20 years, the world has consumed more plastic than in the previous 50 years. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, less than 10% of the 8 billion tonnes of plastic produced (about 1 tonne per person!) since the 1950s has been recycled. We are expected to produce another 600 million tonnes per year by 2025, so we need to act now to reverse the trend.”
In this blog article, we invite you to look closely at the plastic problem. Join us as we dive deeper into the shadowy waters. We will examine the latest research on the hidden cost of plastic to our society, environment and economy. We will then explore solutions to these issues.
The lifetime cost of plastic is 10x its market value
“Crafty marketers have misled consumers for years with propaganda that sells plastic as a ‘cheap’ product. But the catastrophic impacts plastic is having on the environment and human health come at a much higher price.”
Plastic has a price tag that goes far beyond its shelf price. Multiple economic models and research papers have begun to investigate how much plastic costs.
The WWF developed an analysis with Dalberg (a global consulting firm) to quantify the true cost of plastic. Their work concludes that plastic’s lifetime cost is 10x its market value.
The report, entitled Plastics: The Costs to Society, The Environment and The Economy, estimated that, for a global market cost of $370 billion, the lifetime cost of plastic produced in that year alone would be greater than $3,716 billion.
The world’s oceans bear the brunt of plastic pollution – 85% of the lifetime cost of plastic goes towards ecosystem service costs on the marine ecosystem. Currently, more than 11 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year.
The four hidden costs of plastic
The lifetime costs of plastic stem from four areas defined in the WWF report; greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, health, waste management, and unmanaged waste. Let’s uncover each of them.
1. The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from plastic
The production of ‘virgin plastic’ derived from fossil fuel feedstock is a huge contributor to the climate crisis. According to research by the WWF, across its lifecycle, plastic generates 1.8 billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year. To put that data in context, that is more than the total annual GHGs emitted by the aviation and shipping industry combined (UNEP, 2020. Emissions Gap Report 2020).
The cost of GHG emissions comes from production processes, waste management processes, and uncontrolled plastic waste.
But there are also some natural mechanisms that plastic is disrupting. This results in a higher quantity of GHG emissions entering the atmosphere. Last month, we had the chance to welcome Dr. Emma Cavan to Notpla's office. She delivered a fascinating talk about the Blue Economy. She highlighted the important role of krill in mitigating climate change. Krill greatly influences global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Their excrement is full of carbon and sinks quickly, locking carbon in the deep ocean for years or even decades. When krill ingest plastic, their feces no longer sinks. This prevents millions of tons of natural CO2 sequestration.
2. Plastic is damaging our health
One fact holds true whether reaching for our wallets or opening a pot of yoghurt – plastic is everywhere!
Sian Sutherland pointed out that while images of plastic-filled landfills guilt us all, the real cost of plastic is from the invisible yet omnipresent microplastics:
“Scientists are persistently warning us of the threat microplastics are having on human health. Found in absolutely everything – from the air we breathe to the food we eat, to the water we drink – microplastics are infecting our bodies. Researchers found microplastics are even in our blood.”
A study led by the University of Newcastle, Australia, reveals that consuming common food and beverages may result in weekly ingestion of approximately 5 grams of plastic, the equivalent of a credit card.
According to A Detailed review Study on Potential Effects of Microplastics and Additives of Concern on Human Health (Claudia Campanale (2020)), “Use of plastic products leads to ingestion or inhalation of large amounts of plastic particles and hundreds of toxic substances.”. Studies have shown these toxins affect:
- Respiratory systems
- Nervous systems
- Digestive systems
The co-founder of A Plastic Planet added:
“It is haunting to imagine what this fossil-fuel-based material is having on our health, particularly after scientists found microplastics can cause damage to human cells – that’s not a price anyone wants to pay, but right now, we, unfortunately, cannot escape this microplastic expenditure.”
The public is becoming aware that plastic is associated with serious health conditions. It will be some time before concrete numbers are published about plastics’ monetary impact on medical and care sectors. However, what is known to date should encourage everyone to evaluate how much plastic they use in their daily life.
3. The cost of waste management
Waste management costs encompass the collection, sorting, recycling and disposal of trash.
High-income countries have historically sent a large volume of plastic overseas to benefit from the lower cost of recycling in developing countries (i.e., Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam),. But a majority of this waste is not recycled, leaking into the environment and damaging terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
Greenpeace UK and Everyday Plastic recently launched an initiative to curtail the use of single-use plastic where households count the plastic they bin each week. As the UK is second only to the USA in the production of plastic waste per person, the results of ‘The Big Plastic Count’ (expected this month) will be yet another compelling piece of evidence that we need to curtail our plastic addiction. Information on the results will be published here.
4. Unmanaged waste impacting our environment and our society
Vincent Doumeizel told us that worldwide, 40% of plastic objects are thrown away after one month. Every year, an average of 10 million tonnes of these synthetic materials end up at the bottom of the ocean.
Vincent added: "At the current rate, by 2050 the mass of these polymers in the ocean is expected to be 750 million tonnes, an amount greater than the mass of all of fish!”
The WWF defines mismanaged waste as any plastic burned or directly dumped into the environment. The organisation reports that:
- 41% of packaging is mismanaged
- 47% of mismanaged packaging ends up in the ocean
The cost to the planet’s ecosystem is not easy to quantify. Can we put a monetary value on the large-scale loss of sea life and marine habitats attributed to plastic?
The WWF analysed plastic’s economic impact to various industries, such as fishing and tourism, to estimate the cost of mismanaged waste. It found that marine plastic pollution reduces global GDP, up to USD$7 billion in 2018 alone. This decrease is due to plastic pollution detering tourists from travel hotspots or putting fishing and aquaculture activities at risk.
Governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and concerned citizens also incur significant costs from undertaking clean-up activities to remove the waste. To dive deeper into this topic, check out this plastic cost model, developed by Deloitte in partnership with The Ocean Cleanup, which estimates the cost of cleanup for each continent.
Mismanaged plastics that make their way into the natural environment can remain for hundreds of years, putting ecosystems at risk. According to the European Commission, 80-85% of marine litter on European beaches is plastic.
3. Doing better - bringing an end to plastic's externalities
If there is one positive aspect about the published reports on the cost of plastic, it is that governments and businesses can no longer fail to pay attention.
As part of the UK’s Environmental Act, one regulatory change includes the extended responsibility of packaging companies. Fines would apply to businesses selling single-use packaging. The legislation aims to promote the use of reusable or non-plastic single-use products. This is one step closer to a full ban on single-use plastics in England. Scotland has already taken steps to mitigate plastic pollution. Since June of this year, the nation has already banned a range of plastic items.
The EU Commission is also making headway toward a plastic-free future. Introduced earlier this year, the Single-Use Plastics Directive cracks down on plastics, including several bio-based and biodegradable materials such as PLA, PHA and PVOH which all fall in the plastics category.
Notpla is now one of the few packaging solutions not considered plastic by this directive.
According to the EU, a material must be BOTH a natural polymer and not chemically modified to be classifed as not plastic. In order for a material to be considered not chemically modified, its structure must remain unchanged even if it has gone through chemical processes.
Based on the WWF model used to calculate the cost of plastic over its entire lifetime, Notpla’s Impact team estimates there is over 90% less shadow cost to a Notpla product compared to plastic!
Why not take a minute to familiarise yourself with some of the exciting strides Notpla has made to create a sustainable alternative to single-use plastic? A takeaway box no longer needs to cost the Earth. And, you do not need a plastic bottle of water for your next marathon, an Ooho could be an excellent option!
Notpla packaging solutions are made from Notpla material, a material made from seaweed and plants. Notpla’s products easily biodegrade in nature in just 4-6 weeks without the need for industrial composting infrastructure or special conditions.
So wait no further. Join our Not Plastic Revolution! This month is Plastic Free July, so it is the perfect opportunity to join millions of people who are reducing their plastic waste!
This blog has been written with the support of our Impact team, Joy Archer, and the contributions of Sian Sutherland and Vincent Doumeizel.
Sian is a multi-award-winning entrepreneur who is passionate about change. She is the co-founder of A Plastic Planet, a global campaign organisation with a single goal: to ignite and inspire the world to turn off the plastic tap. A Plastic Planet brings a fresh pro-business solutions-focused approach to our environmental crises and has catalysed industry and government policy to drive measurable impact.
Vincent Doumeizel is a Senior Advisor on Oceans & Food at the United Nations Global Compact. With 20 years of experience in the food industry, Vincent is also the director of the Food Programme at Lloyd’s Register Foundation. He recently published “La révolution des algues”, ("The seaweed revolution"). The book is an ode to seaweed, describing the macroalgae’s many benefits to people and the planet. Vincent is a great supporter of Notpla's mission to make packaging disappear thanks to the power of seaweed!