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Greenpeace Report Untangled: 9 Lessons about the Lifetime Cost of Plastics

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Did you know that the cost of plastics to society will persist longer than you?

Whether you’ve learnt to live with the pervasive material or actively loathe it, the cost of plastic goes far beyond the price of bottled water or beverages contained in red solo cups.

With over 380 million tons of plastic produced annually and a whopping 10 million tons of that making its way into our oceans, there's no denying the critical threat plastic poses to marine ecosystems.

Discarded plastic lingers in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands of years - and right now, governments around the world are subsidising a broken plastic system.

Much like us at BBP, WWF has been working tirelessly to get plastic on the political agenda - and finally, following a report published in September 2021, we have a global mandate to begin negotiations for a UN Treaty on plastic pollution.

Here are 9 key facts to give you the low-down…and inspire you to join our quest to eliminate single-use plastic from the music industry!

More than 90% of the lifetime cost of the plastic produced in 2019 is currently not accounted for in the market price of plastic

That essentially means you can buy a single-use plastic item for a tenth of its true cost to the environment and society. So is that throwaway beverage ever worth it?

If you’re reading this, we’re confident that you’re already well on the way to waving goodbye to the single-use plastic in your life. But whatever your take is, it’s no secret that: the later societies and governments wait to take plastic action and reduce the associated GHG emissions, the bigger the price to pay will be.

This figure comes on top of the estimated 200 million metric tons that already circulate our oceans, that’s A LOT of plastic waste. For every unit of plastic that enters the ocean, the costs associated with emissions and waste management are far-reaching. You may have seen the sobering comparison that 11 million tonnes is equivalent to a garbage truck full of plastic being dumped into the ocean Every. Single. Minute. And the scariest part? Production of the material is set to more than double by 2040, if we don’t act to reverse the curve. By that time, plastic pollution in the ocean is expected to triple; accounting for up to 20% of the entire global carbon budget and through this, accelerating the climate crisis.

The lifetime cost of plastic produced in the year 2019 alone was at least US$3.7 trillion

To put it in perspective, that’s more than the GDP of India. But by 2040, lifetime cost could exceed 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.

41% of plastic waste is mismanaged

Waste management systems globally are inadequately prepared to deal with large volumes of plastic waste. This is why the Global North exports (first legally, then illegally) a large part of its plastic waste to the Global South. Of the 41% of plastic waste that is mismanaged, 47% leaks into nature - often ending up in the ocean.

Annually, humans produce an amount of solid plastic waste equal to around 523 trillion plastic straws - if laid lengthwise, these could wrap around the world a staggering 2.8 million times! That’s almost 3. Million. Times.

In Vietnam, 72% of plastic waste is mismanaged and becomes plastic pollution

The saying goes “out of sight, out of mind”. But shipping plastic from higher to lower income countries is a disaster waiting to happen. Between 1992 and 2018, China cumulatively imported 45% of the world’s plastic waste, making the global plastic waste market dependent on access to the Chinese recycling sector.

The emergence of illegal waste operations, in combination with destinations that lack sufficient waste management infrastructure like Vietnam, further contributes to plastic’s deadly impact on the environment.

If plastic were a country, it would be the fifth-highest GHG emitter in the world

Let that sink in for a moment. Via incineration and landfill, waste management also produces significant GHG emissions - predominantly via incineration which releases an air pollutant called black carbon, which has a global warming potential up to 5,000 times greater than carbon dioxide. Additionally, both landfill and incineration result in a need for new virgin plastic production, from which 90% of plastics produced are still derived.

Plastic not only emits CO2, but also limits the ocean’s ability to remove it

Zooplankton are hidden wonders of the ocean. As consumers of phytoplankton which ingest carbon during photosynthesis, it’s the settling of their carbon-rich faecal matter on the ocean floor that offers us a lifeline. But mismanaged plastic waste could threaten this precious carbon sink, as microplastic ingestion can make zooplankton faecal matter more buoyant, meaning it is slower to sink to the ocean floor. Microplastics have also been shown to impact the feeding rate of zooplankton, limiting their capacity to capture and contain carbon in the ocean.

Chemicals associated with the extraction and processing of plastic products are harmful to human health

Cancer, neurotoxicity, hormone disruption - these are just a handful of adverse health impacts that come as a result of burning PVC, fracking for plastic feedstocks and inadvertently ingesting microplastics in daily life. Scientists still don’t fully understand the long-term impacts of microplastic exposure on human health, but the already documented effects are enough to convince us that plastics need to go.

To make matters worse, marginalised communities disproportionately bear the cost of the plastic life cycle. Characterised by prolonged and frequent exposure to faecal matter, medical waste, and hazardous substances puts informal waste pickers at risk of chronic health conditions such as respiratory disorders.

Circular economy could create 700,000 quality jobs across the plastic value chain by 2040

Many necessary solutions to the plastic crisis are already known, but globally we have failed to implement them. Until now. More industry players than ever are getting serious about creating “closed loop” systems, rather than a system in which plastic is used once and then discarded.

Backed by organisations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), World Economic Forum (WEF), and the Pew Charitable Trusts, a circular approach could reduce the annual volume of plastic entering the oceans by 80% and GHG emissions from plastic by 25% - all while promoting job creation and better working conditions.

In essence, it all comes down to 3 core principles: Eliminate, Circulate, Innovate.

Inspired to join our quest for a plastic-free future? Find tailored support, explore our Eco-Riders or donate to support Bye Bye Plastic Foundation on our collective mission: to eliminate single-use plastics from the music industry.

Want to find out more? Read the full WWF report here.

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