Plastic waste causes $13 billion in annual financial damage to marine ecosystems, though the actual cost of plastic waste to the overall environment may be much higher, according to two reports released at a meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly.
One report, the UN Environment Programme Year Book, notes that when plastic material fouls fishing equipment and pollutes beaches it threatens tourism, fisheries and businesses in addition to marine life.
A second UNEP-supported report, Valuing Plastic, produced by the Plastic Disclosure Project and Trucost, says that more than 30 percent of natural capital costs are the result of greenhouse gas emissions from raw material extraction and processing, with marine pollution being the largest downstream cost. The report also says that $13 billion is likely a significant underestimate.
According to the report, if one calculates the negative impact of issues such as marine environment or air pollution caused by incinerating plastic, the overall natural capital cost in the consumer goods sector each year is $75 billion.
Since the release of the 2011 UNEP Year Book, concern has also grown over microplastics – particles up to 5 mm in diameter that often aren’t filtered out during sewage treatment. Communities of microbes can thrive on microplastics, which can then transmit harmful microbes and pathogens to marine life.
Recommendations from the reports include having companies monitor their plastic use and publish the results in annual reports, and committing to reducing the environmental impact of plastic through clear targets, deadlines and efficiency and recycling innovations.
Several companies have already taken the initiative in this area, and are actively working to both stop environmental damage caused by plastic and turn plastic waste into a source of revenue. Ecover, working with Closed Loop Recycling, is using plastic bottles collected by European fishermen to create recyclable bottles.
In a similar spirit, nylon polymer manufacturer Aquafil, sock company Star Sock, and the European Centre for Nature Conservation Land & Sea Group have launched an initiative to remove marine litter — in particular used fishing nets — and recycle it into yarn to make carpeting, socks, underwear, swimwear and other textiles.
Photo credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret