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The Real Cost of Plastic

A new study shows the actual cost to society, environment, and the economy.

For just the year 2019, the actual cost of plastic produced is US$3.7 trillion - more than the GDP of India. 


A new report, “Plastics: The cost to society, environment, and the economy” shows the true cost of plastic pollution. This report separates the cost of the production of plastic to the impact, or lifetime cost, to society, environment and economy while laying out in stark terms the devastating impact plastic will have on all of us unless we take urgent action now.

In 2019, according to the new report by Dalberg and commissioned by WWF, the lifetime cost of the plastic produced in that year alone has been revealed at US$3.7 trillion,¹ more than the GDP of India.

Unless action is taken, these costs are set to double for the plastics produced in 2040 at US$7.1 trillion², equivalent to 85% of global spending on health in 2018 and greater than the GDP of Germany, Canada, and Australia in 2019 combined. The report demonstrates that governments and citizens are unknowingly subsiding a plastic system that is imposing countless negative impacts on people and the environment.

“Plastic is everywhere. From the deepest parts of our ocean to the tallest mountain peaks, from the beaches of Aotearoa to the remote Arctic. It is in the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. A staggering 11 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year, while humans are consuming up to a credit card a week worth of plastic. We are paying the price -literally- for our reliance on plastic many times over. From retail to waste management to leakage into the environment to greenhouse gas emissions. It is costing us the Earth. A global problem requires a global solution and Aotearoa must play its part,” says Livia Esterhazy, WWF-New Zealand CEO.

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To address this crisis on a systemic level and reduce the cost that plastic imposes on society, WWF is calling on governments to start the negotiation of a legally binding global treaty on marine plastic pollution at the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly in February 2022.

The new figures released as discussions take place at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, highlight the importance of a global solution to tackle the plastic pollution crisis in response to escalating concern about a lack of global coordination in plastic action. So far, over two million people have signed a petition, including more that 4,100 New Zealanders, and more than 75 businesses have endorsed the call for a global treaty on marine plastic pollution. The majority of the UN Member States (119 countries) have explicitly supported the establishment of a new global agreement to address plastic pollution.

Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International says, “This is the first time we have seen such a clear assessment of some of the unaccounted costs being imposed by plastic pollution on society and they are a burden that is too high to bear - both for people and the environment. Tragically, the plastic pollution crisis is showing no signs of slowing down, but the commitment to tackle it has reached an unprecedented level. We need a UN treaty on plastic pollution that unites governments, companies and consumers around clear targets for reduction, collection, recycling and sustainable alternatives to stop plastic leakage into the environment by 2030.”

Failure to understand and remediate the real costs of plastic will cost even more in the future, as under a business as usual scenario it is estimated that by 2040 there will be a doubling of plastic production and a tripling of plastic pollution entering the ocean to 29 million tonnes, increasing the total stock of plastic in the ocean to 600 million tonnes. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the plastic lifecycle will account for up to 20% of the entire global carbon budget, accelerating the climate crisis.

The analysis shows that the cost of plastic to society, the environment and the economy is at least 10 times higher than the market price of virgin plastic, and the current approach to addressing the plastic crisis is failing. Marginalised communities are disproportionately bearing the cost of the plastic lifecycle, and climate change, which the plastics lifecycle is contributing to, disproportionately affects disadvantaged groups.

The currently quantifiable societal cost of plastic is significant, but this could be just the tip of the iceberg. In particular, the costs of known and potential impacts on human health as well as impacts on the terrestrial ecosystems have not been quantified or are still difficult to quantify at this point.

The majority of countries came out in strong support of moving forward with treaty negotiations at the first ever Global Ministerial Meeting on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution which took place last week (1-2 Sept). 15 new countries endorsed a new UN Treaty on Plastic pollution, bringing the total number of supportive governments to 119. WWF is urging all UN member states to start negotiating for a global treaty that must tackle all stages of the plastic lifecycle, stopping the leakage of plastic pollution into the oceans by 2030.

Notes to editors:

¹ This is based on the authors of this report’s estimate of the median minimum lifetime cost of the plastic produced in 2019 being US$3.7 trillion - upper bound being US$4.8 trillion and lower bound being US$2.7 trillion - and countries’ GDP data from Investopedia Silver, Caleb., 2020. The Top 25 Economies in the World. Investopedia. See Annex 3: Methodology for an overview of how this figure was calculated. All values provided in 2019 US $.

² Note that the estimated lifetime costs of plastic produced in 2040 excludes the market cost of plastic.

The costs of plastic imposed on governments and society include:

1. Market cost of plastic: The market cost of the plastic produced in 2019 was ~US$370 billion;

2. Waste management costs: The management of plastic waste costs more than US $32 billion, to collect, sort, dispose and recycle the huge quantities of plastic waste generated every year.

3. Ecosystem services costs: The plastic produced in 2019 that becomes marine plastic pollution will incur a minimum cost of ~US$3.1 trillion (+/- 1 trillion) over its lifetime in the ocean, equivalent to ~60% of global spending on education in 2019.

The authors calculate the lifetime cost of plastic by using the perpetuity formula with a discount rate of 2% as per Drupp, M.A. et al. (2018) “Discounting Disentangled”, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 10(4), pp 109-34. Consequently, 85% of the lifetime value of plastic is borne in the first 100 years and 95% of the lifetime value is borne in the first 150 years. This gives the authors confidence in their efforts to provide a conservative estimate of plastic’s lifespan since key plastic waste types have life expectancies beyond 150 years. The formula used was the annual cost of plastic produced in 2019 that entered the ocean (LB: 41,897,689,714 , UB:83,795,379,428) divided by the discount rate of 2%.

WWF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released new policy white papers on 31st August 2021 outlining the key success criteria and general elements that such a treaty should contain.

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