GLOBAL – Plastic waste inflicts US$13 billion worth of damage to marine ecosystems each year, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
‘Valuing Plastic’, a UNEP-supported report produced by the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) and Trucost, makes the business case for managing and disclosing plastic use in the consumer goods industry.
The report has found that the overall natural capital cost of plastic use in the consumer goods sector each year is US$75 billion - financial impacts resulting from issues such as pollution of the marine environment or air pollution caused by incinerating plastic.
Of the total cost, over 30% are due to greenhouse gas emissions from raw material extraction and processing. Marine pollution was found to be the largest downstream cost, and the report says “the figure of US$13 billion is likely a significant underestimate”.
Much of the plastic waste found in marine ecosystems enters the ocean from littering, poorly managed landfills, tourist activities and fisheries. Some of this material sinks to the ocean floor, while some floats and can travel over great distances on ocean currents - polluting shorelines and accumulating in massive mid-ocean gyres.
The environmental damage due to plastic waste includes 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. There are also concerns about chemical contamination, invasive species spread by plastic fragments, and economic damage to the fishing and tourism industries in many countries - by, for example, fouling fishing equipment and polluting beaches.
One particular concern raised by UNEP is over microplastics, i.e. particles up to 5mm in diameter, either manufactured or created when plastic breaks down. Their ingestion has been widely reported in marine organisms, including seabirds, fish, mussels, worms and zooplankton. Communities of microbes have been discovered thriving on microplastics at multiple locations in the North Atlantic, and this "plastisphere" can facilitate the transport of harmful microbes, pathogens and algal species. Microplastics have also been identified as a threat to larger organisms, such as the endangered northern right whale, which is potentially exposed to ingestion through filter-feeding.
Action needed to tackle plastic waste
"Plastics have come to play a crucial role in modern life, but the environmental impacts of the way we use them cannot be ignored," said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director. "Reducing, recycling and redesigning products that use plastics can bring multiple green economy benefits - from reducing economic damage to marine ecosystems and the tourism and fisheries industries, vital for many developing countries, to bringing savings and opportunities for innovation to companies while reducing reputational risks.
"Our economies are still largely fossil-fuel based, with the environmental, economic and health costs hidden," he added. "For example, in the polar regions, scientists have recently found tiny pieces of plastic trapped in sea ice. Transported by ocean currents across great distances, these contaminated particles eventually become a source of chemicals in our food. The key course of action is to prevent plastic debris from entering the environment in the first place, which translates into a single powerful objective: reduce, reuse, recycle."
UNEP has called on companies to monitor their plastic use and commit to reducing the environmental impact of plastic through clear targets and deadlines and innovate to increase resource efficiency and recycling.
The agency says there should also be an increased focus on awareness campaigns to discourage littering and prevent plastic waste from reaching the ocean.
In addition, since plastic particles can be ingested by marine organisms and potentially accumulate and deliver toxins through the food web, efforts should be stepped up to fill the knowledge gaps and better understand the capacity of various plastics to absorb and transfer persistent, toxic and bioaccumulating chemicals.
"Natural capital valuation has the power to help organizations understand their environmental impacts, including pollution of the ocean," said Richard Mattison, Trucost Chief Executive.
"By putting a financial value on impacts such as plastic waste, companies can further integrate effective environmental management into mainstream businesses. By highlighting the savings from reuse and recycling, it builds a business case for proactive sustainability improvements."