Following the historic UN Plastic Pollution Treaty — plastic pollution has officially entered mainstream conversations. Plastic pollution is such a hot topic due to its intensifying impact on human health, the environment, and the worldwide economy.
So, why are plastics linked to climate change and other social and economic issues? Let’s break it down.
Environmental Consequences of Plastic Pollution
To set the stage, most plastics are produced from fossil fuels (mostly oil and gas). It is forecasted that plastic production will account for 20% of all oil consumption by 2050.
Plastic’s inexorable link to fossil fuels justifies its sizable contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, plastic production is expected to outpace the greenhouse gas emissions from US coal power plants by 2040.
Plastic’s end-of-life environmental consequences are unfortunately just as devastating as the impact of its production. The 91% of the world’s mismanaged plastics are either landfilled, incinerated, or leaked into rivers and oceans.
The greenhouse gas emissions from landfilling and burning plastics are difficult to account for; however, it is estimated that nearly 24 billion pounds of plastic waste ends up in our oceans annually and is expected to triple by 2040.
Damaging our ocean’s ecosystem is no joke; scientists estimate that 50-80% of the Earth’s oxygen comes from the ocean. And although it’s nearly impossible to assess, scientists estimate that plastic pollution kills ~ 100,000 marine mammals every year.
It is clear we must turn off the tap on plastic waste before we cause irreversible ecosystem damage.
Social Impacts of Plastic Pollution
Together, the production, usage, and end-of-life treatment of plastics have shocking consequences for communities across the globe, and unfortunately, the impacts are often concentrated in low-income communities.
St. Gabriel, Louisiana, is inundated by petrochemical plants and has become commonly known as “Cancer Alley” due to the overwhelming number of cancer cases and miscarriages among the local community.
The use and exposure to plastics can also harm human health, “potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity.”
Furthermore, once plastic reaches the end of the life cycle, if they are not recycled, they are often shipped from developed countries to the global south. Last year it was estimated that the US exported 1 million tons of plastic waste to developing countries.
These developing countries often don’t have the infrastructure to support their own plastic waste and are crushed by the imported plastics, and the only management option is incineration. The associated plastic fumes are toxic and are linked to developmental disorders, endocrine system disruption, and cancer.
Half of the plastic waste epidemic is composed of single-use plastics. As a result, our society’s wasteful habits have much more far-reaching consequences on humankind than we could ever imagine.
Plastic Pollution's Effect on Economies
The economic impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly well recognized. But what about plastic pollution?
Well, first take in this statistic, the estimated loss of marine ecosystem services due to plastic pollution will be equal to $2.5 trillion a year.
This number should also be assessed through the lens that the ecosystem loss is occuring in places of the world directly dependent on these marine ecosystem services to survive.
Additionally, the estimation of $2.5 trillion is expected to be a vast underestimation of the true cost.
Turning the Tide
The effects of plastic pollution are truly devastating, but we have an obligation to make two important observations.
The first is that not all plastics are bad. Proper implementation can help limit greenhouse gas emissions, food waste, etc.
The second is that we still have time to turn the tide on plastics. If we are able to achieve a circular economy for plastics, it is estimated that we can reduce “plastics entering oceans by over 80 percent by 2040; reduce virgin plastic production by 55 percent; save governments US $70 billion by 2040; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent, and create 700,000 additional jobs – mainly in the global south.”
Companies and individuals alike have the opportunity and the obligation to pursue a world with less plastic waste.
We must act now, and we must act with the intent to truly want to change the world. It will not be enough to market claims or pay our way out of this crisis. We must all intend to change and act every day to ensure our children and grandchildren have a beautiful world to live in.