A material whose use has rapidly grown in the past century, plastic is a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and ecological pollution, WWF warns.
“Plastic is cheap, versatile and reliable,” says Eirik Lindebjerg, Global Plastics Policy Manager at WWF.
Plastics have become integral to our life since their invention at the beginning of the 20th century. From plastic bags to countertops to packaging material to diapers, the seemingly cheap-to-produce and disposable substance has infiltrated our lives to a great extent.
According to Lindebjerg, “since 2000, the world has produced as much plastic as all the preceding years combined. Almost half of all plastic produced is created into throwaway products, used for less than three years.”
What’s more alarming, “humanity now produces more than 200 million tonnes of plastic waste annually.” The material is hard to dispose of, and the world produces more and more of it each year. Because most plastic is single-use, that means we produce more and more plastic waste each year, too.
Lindebjerg tells TRT World that “41 percent of plastic waste is mismanaged: openly burned, dumped directly or leaked into the environment. More than 11 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year.”
A significant amount of plastic waste inevitably becomes plastic pollution, as Lindebjerg puts it: “The world’s inability to manage plastic waste results in one-third of plastic, 100 million metric tons of plastic waste, becoming land or marine pollution.”
Lindebjerg warns that if business continues as usual, it is estimated that “by 2040 there will be a tripling of pollution entering the ocean to 29 million tonnes, increasing the total stock of plastic in the oceans to 600 million tonnes. This is equivalent to around double the weight of the entire global adult population in 2005.”
In a new report for WWF written by Dalberg Advisors in association with a team comprising Wijnand DeWit, Erin Towers Burns, Jean-Charles Guinchard and Nour Ahmed, the authors note that “the production, consumption and disposal of this material impose significant negative impacts on society, the environment, and the economy. These costs are not accounted for in the current price of virgin plastic.”
During production, chemical pollutants and greenhouse gases (GHG) are released into the environment, which can cause “adverse health effects in humans and contribute to climate change.”
If we were to take into account the costs beyond the treatment of virgin plastic into plastic goods, we would find that ”the cost of plastic to the environment and society is at least 10 times higher than its market price paid by primary plastic producers, generating significant external costs for countries.”
The authors of the WWF report believe that plastic has been poorly managed due to the failure of governments “to better understand the real costs” of the material, and has led to “growing ecological, social, and economic costs for countries.”
Lindebjerg says “For every dollar that producers pay for plastic, governments and society will spend at least 10 times as much to remedy its countless negative impacts.” These costs include costs of GHG emissions from production processes and from waste management processes; costs to governments and indirectly to companies or citizens based on the taxes used to fund formal or informal waste management; costs of plastic pollution to marine ecosystems including effects on food sources, carbon removal, tourism and other; clean-up activity costs.
There are also some shocking statistics, too, Lindebjerg reveals, as noted in the report, “Plastics: The costs to society, the environment and the economy.” He says that the lifetime cost of plastic produced in 2019 is “estimated to be at US$3.7 trillion (+/-US$1 trillion), or more than the GDP of India.”
He goes on to note that “Unless action is taken, the societal lifetime costs of the projected virgin plastic produced in 2040 could reach more than US$7.1 trillion (+/-2.2 trillion), equivalent to around 85 percent of global spending on health in 2018 and greater than the GDP of Germany, Canada, and Australia in 2019 combined.”
Using plastics is hazardous to health and to the environment both. “Across the lifecycle, plastic is responsible for generating 1.8 billion tonnes of GHG emissions a year. If plastic were a country, it would be the fifth-highest emitter in the world,” Lindebjerg tells TRT World in an email interview.
As has been shown widely in the past few decades, greenhouse gases contribute to ecological disasters “such as shrinking glaciers, flooding, and crop death from more intense droughts, imposing huge costs on governments and society.”
Moreover, plastic can stay in the environment for hundreds to thousands of years, breaking into micro pieces “impossible to remove,” and can affect marine and land-based ecosystems in a terrible manner.
While the potential effects of plastic crisis on human health are not still fully understood, Lindebjerg concedes, he still emphasises that “the production, incineration, and open burning of plastic polymers releases chemical pollutants that pose a significant threat to human health.”
What’s more, “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 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, disproportionately affects disadvantaged groups.”
The politics of waste play out in a similar manner globally, as high-income countries send their waste to low-income countries for disposal. Lindebjerg gives the example of Viet Nam, which received 83,000 tonnes of plastic from the US in 2019. According to WWF, “a large majority of this waste is not recycled, leaking into the environment, and causing damage to the destination country's environment and human health.”
“Many of the destination countries have limited waste management systems, for example in Viet Nam 72% of plastic waste is mismanaged and becomes plastic pollution,” Lindebjerg laments. “Such plastic pollution imposes countless detrimental impacts on destination countries, including contaminated water supplies, crop death, and respiratory illness from exposure to burning plastic.”
Asked what the WWF suggests governments do, Lindebjerg is clear: “WWF calls on governments to start the negotiation of a legally binding global treaty on marine plastic pollution at the UN Environment Assembly in February 2022. This global treaty must tackle all stages of the plastic lifecycle, stopping the leakage of plastic pollution into the oceans by 2030.”
Thumbnail image: Giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) adult playing with plastic bottle, Pantanal, Pocone, Brazil July 4, 2011. (naturepl.com / Paul Williams / WWF)
Headline image: Jellyfish (Catostylus sp.) swims beneath a slick of plastic debris. Indian Ocean off Sri Lanka, March 5, 2019 (naturepl.com / Alex Mustard / WWF)