Researchers for the first time have put a price tag on the environmental damage done by the millions of tons of plastic floating around the world’s oceans: $13 billion a year.
They added that consumers can do their part to alleviate the problem. One place to start: Avoid personal care products containing polymer microbeads.
Two reports released last week at the first United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi paint a troubling picture but also describe feasible—even profitable—uses of postconsumer plastic to help keep it out of the environment. The Plastic Disclosure Project and Trucost, an environmental data firm, produced the papers with support from the U.N. Environmental Program.
The researchers pegged the annual environmental damage from plastic use in consumer goods at an estimated $75 billion.
Some 10 million to 20 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year, accounting for up to 80 percent of the trash at sea and on shores.
Oceanic plastic comes from “littering, poorly managed landfills, tourist activities, and fisheries,” the UNEP said in a statement. Some sinks to the bottom, but much remains as flotsam, traveling vast distances and “accumulating in massive midocean gyres,” such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Plastic can cause “mortality or illness when ingested by sea creatures such as turtles, entanglement of animals such as dolphins and whales, and damage to critical habitats such as coral reefs,” the UNEP said. Other problems include chemical pollution, the spread of harmful invasive species that travel on plastic debris, and economic damage to fishing and tourism industries.
Doug Woodring, founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, which runs the Plastic Disclosure Project, said the $13 billion estimate is conservative: “It depends how wide-ranging you want to incorporate the externalities of waste,” which can include effects on human health, tourism, greenhouse gases, and wildlife.
Cleanup costs are staggering. Woodring said California, Oregon, and Washington alone spend an estimated $500 million a year removing waste from the Pacific coastline.
Now “we have a way to say what we’re doing does cause a problem, and here’s a dollar value,” Woodring said of the UNEP report.
There are many ways to reduce plastic pollution, Woodring said, such as generating less waste in the supply chain. Many products from China, for example, are individually shrink-wrapped before shipping, then unwrapped before landing on shelves.
We also need more recycling. Many stores now have “bring-back” programs that let people recycle products containing plastics. Water bottles are particularly challenging, as they contain three types of plastics—bottle, cap, and label—that must be processed separately, increasing costs. Using a single plastic would reduce those costs. (Or better yet, drink from reusable bottles.)
Woodring said industry could also turn to plant-based plastics, though they often must be treated or composted to decompose.
Perhaps the most insidious plastic pollution comes from the tiny polymer microbeads in toothpaste, gels, and facial and body cleansers. Larger pieces of floating plastic can also degrade into microplastic.
Microplastics were recently found in polar sea ice, according to the UNEP, and evidence shows they are eaten by birds, mussels, worms, plankton, the endangered northern right whale, and fish. Yes, remnants of your face scrub could end up on someone’s dinner plate.
Most municipal wastewater systems aren’t equipped to filter the beads, so they end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans, Woodring said. The only solution is to eliminate the material.
It can be done. Before the advent of microbeads, many scrubs contained organic particles, such as apricot pits. In response to the growing outcry over microbeads, personal care giant Unilever announced last year it will phase out polymer beads by 2015.
Woodring hopes the new data will alarm people in the same way climate change does. Unlike carbon dioxide, people can see plastic, which often is emblazoned with the logo of a leading consumer brand.
Consumers—also known as citizens—are as vital to solving this crisis as industry and government. “Everyone’s at fault,” Woodring said. “But we can open a new chapter in thinking of how to manage waste.”