The true cost of plastic – Plastic Facts
Have you ever thought about how much you are paying for plastics? You can see the price tag of plastic food containers, but the cost of plastic packaging is invisible. When you buy a bottle of shampoo, how much are you paying for the plastic bottle? When you throw the bottle, is it get recycled for free?
The plastic facts are shocking. WWF and global consultancy from Dalberg have worked to estimate the true cost of plastics to society and the environment. It is AU$5 trillion on the globally produced plastic in just a year. We don’t notice the hidden costs, but we are paying the cost indirectly (tax or service fee) and no one hasn’t paid for managing the most of plastics in the ocean and landfills.
We see and talk a lot about plastic pollution in the ocean and think recycling and reusing will solve the issue. But, when you look at the lifecycle of plastic, from oil extraction to its end of life, not making plastics in the first place is the solution. Can we live without plastics?
Plastic is a fantastic material, lightweight, unbreakable, flexible, resilient, waterproof, etc. It can be used for many different products, fabrics, furniture, machines, tools, packaging, etc. But…
- 10% of crude oil becomes plastics. We have to extract oil
- 367 metric tonnes of virgin plastics were produced from oil in 2020
- 1 metric tonnes of bioplastics were produced from plant in 2020
- 40% of plastics are used for packaging and were thrown away within a month
- Less than 10% of plastics is recycled, and the rest ends in landfills
- 0.5% of plastics in the ocean is on the surface of the water. Cleaning up ocean can only remove a tiny bit
- Plastics are responsible for at least 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists are looking more at the impacts from production, incineration, recycling, and pollution.
Where does plastic waste go?
Plastics never degrade in natural environment. They just break down into smaller pieces until we cannot see. Synthetic fabric made of plastic also release small particles. The small plastics (microplastics) are everywhere, in the ocean, on lands, and in the air. The fields where our crops grow are 4 to 23 times more heavily polluted with microplastics than the oceans. They get into our body via food, water, and the air. Research on the effects of microplastics is still immature and there aren’t enough data yet.
What is the true cost of plastic?
When we purchase an item made of plastics, we pay only the cost to make and assemble it. Because of the large subsidies for the oil industry, virgin plastic can appear to be a cheap commodity on the market. But there are hidden costs we pay indirectly.
- Costs of greenhouse gas emissions from production and waste management processes
- Direct costs for waste management
- Costs for cleaning up pollutions
- Environment recovery costs
- Revenue reductions from fisheries, farmers, and tourism
And there are unknown costs
- Health costs from production and waste management processes
- Health costs from uncontrolled plastic waste such as microplastics
- Lost ecosystem related to plastic production and pollution
What about bioplastics and recycled plastics?
Although we can make plastics from plants, bioplastics can fill less than 1% of the demand. Simply, there is not enough land and water to grow required amount of plant. Recycled plastic makes you feel less guilty than virgin plastic. While 1 ton of recycled plastic saves 5774 kwh of energy, 1950 litter of oil, and 23 cubic meter of landfill space, recycling industry has a limited capability and only 10% gets recycled. Also, many businesses want to use recycled plastic for their environmental sustainability credentials and this demand pushed the recycled plastic price 103% higher than last year. This makes cheaper virgin plastics more appearing.
So, we still need to dig oil to make plastics. You may already know that we need to stop using fossil fuels to combat climate change. 7% of global greenhouse gas emission comes from the oil extraction processes. Oil drilling and plastic resin production processes also have a serious impact on the health of nature and humans.
Plastic waste and climate change
How plastic waste contributes to the climate change? Since only 10% of plastic gets recycled, 90% will be either incinerated or sent to landfills. Some get lost and mismanaged. Mismanaged plastic waste is either disposed of by burning in open fires or dumping int the land space. Open burning has severe negative impacts on the climate, releasing an air pollutant “black carbon”, which is up to 5000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Plastics dumped into the land space also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic continually releases greenhouse gases during the degradation process. Plastic waste often gets into a water source and ends in the ocean. Large piece of plastics causes death of fish and marine animals. Smaller pieces are eaten by fish and other marine animals and negatively affect their health. Microplastics are being ingested by the smallest planktons and disrupt their growth. Those planktons play a critical role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, absorbing more CO2 than trees. Plastic waste directly and indirectly contributes to climate change.
Plastic pollution solutions - How to not waste plastic?
Eliminate - Plastics are convenient but try not to create or use them in the first place
Reuse – Choose items designed to use for a long time, and use them many times
Support the system – There are services such as collecting recyclable items, pre-paid shipping to send back to the supplier, or re-fill stores in your area
There are also new technologies to convert plastics to fuel, energy, and construction materials. Hopefully, we have more facilities to do this in the future. Do your best to reduce or get more plastic waste recycled.
It is very difficult to eliminate plastic entirely from our life since plastic is used in everything we use. Part of the reasons that plastics are everywhere is we treat them as a cheap disposable commodity. Plastic price on the market is cheap because of the large subsidies for the oil industry, but we should be aware there are costs to manage waste, clean up pollution, and protect environment associated plastic consumption. There are also unknown ongoing costs for health and ecosystem recovery. Estimated total cost for the entire plastic lifecycle is 10 times of its market price.
It is the best not to make and use plastic in the first place because we don’t have a capability to manage the amount of waste. Recyclable product doesn’t mean sustainable if it doesn’t get recycled. Reusable product doesn’t mean eco-friendly if you don’t reuse it enough. Avoid purchasing new plastic wherever possible, and dispose of them correctly at the end of their life.
Plastic Facts & Figures - https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/en/plastic-facts-and-figures/
Production capacity of bioplastics worldwide from 2019 to 2025, by type - https://www.statista.com/statistics/678684/global-production-capacity-of-bioplastics-by-type/
Producer price index by industry: plastic material and resins manufacturing - https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/PCU325211325211
Recycled plastic prices soar as rival industries dip into beverage producer’s supply - https://rethinkingmaterials.com/recycled-plastic-prices-soar/