Plastic pollution to cost society $7.1 trillion by 2040

A new report by WWF and Dalberg has revealed that the societal cost of plastic pollution could hit US$7.1 trillion by 2040 if urgent action is not taken.

Marine plastic
The report, titled ‘Plastics: The cost to society, environment and the economy’, estimates that plastic pollution will double by 2040 if significant changes are not made, with ocean plastic pollution set to triple within the same timeframe.

Whilst plastic appears to be a financially cheap item, the WWF report takes into account the full cost imposed across the plastic lifestyle, incorporating direct and indirect factors such as greenhouse gas emissions, health costs, waste management, and mismanaged waste costs. The minimum cost that plastic produced in 2019 will incur over its lifetime, according to WWF, is an estimated US$ 3.7 trillion.

As plastic is a very durable material it takes hundreds of years to degrade, this means that costs are incurred over a significant period of time. The report also points to the nature of plastic degradation, which sees the material breaking down into increasingly small particles, making it very difficult to recover and remove from the environment.

The report points to organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), World Economic Forum (WEF) and Pew Charitable Trust, all of which have outlined measures to tackle the plastic crisis. Urging for a substantial shift towards a circular economy, the report notes that progress so far has been slow due to ‘misplaced incentives’ for both government and industry.

Additionally, WWF asserts that efforts to address the plastic crisis have been limited by a lack of global coordination, an absence of legal enforcement, a lack of technical capacity and comprehensive research, and narrow government policy.

The report calls on governments to establish a legally binding international treaty on marine plastic pollution at the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly in February 2022. A treaty such as this, it says, would globally harmonise standards and definitions, increase policy effectiveness and facilitate business efforts to support the circular economy.

Any treaty addressing the issue, WWF says, should consider policy measures across all stages of the plastic lifecycle, with prioritisation based on leakage risk. Additionally, the report urges policymakers to use the treaty to set up a dedicated scientific body to address and track plastic pollution, as well as providing implementation support.

Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, said: “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.”

The report follows the EMF’s recent white paper, which similarly urged policymakers to establish a UN treaty to address the global plastic crisis and support the transition towards a circular economy.

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