Economic cost of plastic pollution: Can we afford it?

Economic cost of plastic pollution: Can we afford it?

In Southeast Asia’s lower Mekong River basin, you might easily run into catfish about the length of a car and weighing up to 300 kilogrammes, dolphins that interacts with people or you could even discover something that has never been seen before. In the Lower Mekong Basin, almost 2,000 new species were identified between 1997 and 2014.


However, the actual state of the Mekong River tells a totally different story. Mekong is among the top 10 most polluted rivers in the world, thanks to industrial discharge and largely plastic waste dump into the river. Fast-forward to now, plastic pollution in the Mekong River severely impacted the fishing industry, causing reduced productivity and an estimated economic loss of $280 million. The tourism sector suffered from a decline of reputation, resulting in economic losses of $33-58 million annually.


Agricultural productivity decreased due to clogged waterways and healthcare expenses rose due to the polluted water.


Despite how it feels, the transformation was not sudden and it was just a scaled model of what is happening worldwide to our oceans and rivers (which eventually lead the plastic waste to the oceans).


Such events that are being replicated in some forms globally are costing the planet, close to $2.2 trillion! The utilization is certainly convenient, but the cost that the planet is paying for it, is that so convenient for us?  Let’s find out.


Cost of plastic pollution:

According to two reports released on the first day of the first United Nations Environment Assembly in 2014, there is growing concern over the threat that widespread plastic waste poses to marine life, with conservative estimates of the overall financial damage that plastics cause to marine ecosystems standing at US$13 billion each year.


According to a 2019 research, marine plastic pollution has cost us more than US$ 2.2 trillion  annually in just five years. It is a sign of an intrinsically wasteful linear plastic economy.


Currently, more than 200 million tonnes of plastic trash is produced worldwide each year.  This is about equivalent to 523 trillion plastic straws, which, if put out lengthwise, could circle the globe 2.8 million times. Nearly half of this debris is improperly disposed of, with more than 11 million tonnes of plastic entering the ocean annually by open burning, direct dumping, or leakage into the ecosystem.


According to the report “Plastics: The Cost to Society, Environment, and the Economy,” plastic produces 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) annually over its entire existence. That exceeds the annual emissions from shipping and aircraft put together.


The financial cost of accelerated climate change it triggers is a different story altogether.


The biggest issue with the control of plastic waste is the convenience along with the flexibility, durability, and low cost of production plastic products bring with them, accelerating the production, subsequently increasing the final amount of plastic waste into our oceans.


The Plastic Pickle

More than US $32 billion is spent every year on the collection, sorting, disposal, and recycling of the vast amounts of plastic trash produced. Clean-up efforts to get rid of the debris come at a great expense as well to the governments, NGOs, and concerned citizens at up to $15 billion annually.


Gross domestic product (GDP) losses resulting from marine plastic pollution have been calculated to be as high as US$7 billion for the year 2018. The decline in tourism, fishing, aquaculture, and other industries’ earnings is the main cause of this.


Rivers discharge millions of tonnes of plastic debris into the ocean every year. The plastic remains in the water and disintegrates into millions of poisonous microplastic pieces. More than 100,000 fish, birds, cetaceans, and turtles perish each year as a result of ingesting, suffocating, or being abraded by plastic waste.


Garbage-laden beaches and polluted environments, like dirty and smelly surroundings, deter tourists, leading to decreased numbers of visitors, reduced revenue for local businesses, and negative impacts on the tourism industry.


Plastic debris, on the other hand, damages fishing equipment, contaminates catches, and reduces the market value of seafood products. The fishing industry experiences productivity losses and increased operational costs.


It also contributes to health issues, such as respiratory problems and waterborne diseases. Treating and managing these health effects incur additional healthcare costs globally. Endocrine disrupting substances (EDS), which have been linked to a number of health issues including infertility, obesity, diabetes, thyroid issues, prostate or breast cancer, and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, are present in plastic waste.


Cleaning up plastic pollution from oceans, rivers, and ecosystems involves significant expenditures on cleanup operations and environmental restoration, affecting public and private budgets.


Plastic waste also contaminates soils and obstructs irrigation systems, reducing agricultural productivity and impacting crop yields, which in turn affects farmers’ livelihoods and global food supply.


The cumulative economic losses from plastic pollution are substantial and difficult to quantify precisely, but they encompass expenses in tourism, fisheries, waste management, healthcare, environmental restoration, and agricultural sectors. The adverse economic impacts extend beyond individual industries, affecting national economies and hindering sustainable development efforts globally.



Plastic pollution imposes significant economic costs globally. Conservative estimates suggest annual damages of $13 billion to marine ecosystems, while a 5-year period cost over $2.2 trillion. Over 200 million tonnes of plastic waste is produced each year, with nearly half improperly disposed of, leading to environmental and health consequences.

Plastic generates an immense amount of greenhouse gas, surpassing shipping and aircraft emissions combined. Cleanup expenses amount to over $15 billion annually, and GDP losses from marine plastic pollution reached $7 billion in 2018. The fishing, tourism, agriculture, and healthcare sectors bear the brunt of these economic losses.


The expense of the plastic lifecycle is disproportionately borne by the marginalised population. Many low-income and marginalised areas are home to oil and gas refineries and incinerators, putting their health and economy at risk.


Throughout the processing of plastic garbage, unlicensed waste collectors are exposed to serious health dangers. The impact of climate change, which the life span of plastics contributes to, is disproportionately felt by underprivileged people.


In areas like the clearing of forests for the construction of roads, the eviction of indigenous peoples to make way for oil drilling, and the tainting of potable water by fracking operations to extract natural gas in nations like the United States and Sudan, a UNEP report demonstrates how environmental injustices are connected to the production of plastic.


Promoting widespread awareness and education about the environmental impacts of plastic is crucial to fight this menace. Encouraging individuals to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastic is essential. Governments should implement policies to reduce single-use plastics, promote sustainable alternatives (cheaper and convenient), and enforce proper waste management practices.


Industries can adopt eco-friendly packaging and production practices. Innovations in plastic recycling and waste-to-energy technologies should be supported. Collaboration among governments, businesses, communities, and individuals is vital to drive systemic change.


By collectively reducing plastic consumption, promoting recycling, and supporting sustainable alternatives, we can mitigate the harmful effects of plastic pollution and create a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Plastic is often considered cheaper and more convenient due to the lack of consideration for its environmental and social costs in economic analyses. It is obvious that by including these costs and shaping policies accordingly, the usage of plastic can be reduced. When the true impact of plastic on the environment and society is acknowledged, it becomes evident that alternative solutions may be more economically viable in the long run. By implementing policies that reflect the true costs of plastic, we can encourage sustainable alternatives and drive a significant reduction in plastic usage.

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