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The Hidden Cost of Plastic

Updated: Apr 2

Sophie Ranson explores the concealed ethical and environmental repercussions associated with plastic.

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Photo by Possessed Photography

From cosmetics to cleaning products, plastic is a ubiquitous feature of modern society. Strong, malleable and durable: its qualities have prompted market growth globally and plastic consumption has quadrupled over the last three decades, doubling between 2000 and 2019 alone. Yet its growing presence creates complications for people and the planet.

At 1.8 billion tonnes, the plastic industry accounts for 3.3% of global emissions; 90% of this originates from production. And it’s at the wellhead where the downsides of the plastic industry begin, according to Priscilla Villa, former Earthworks campaigner.


“When we talk about fracked gas, we’re talking about fracked plastic,” she says. .

Local communities around these sites pay the price of poorer health. For example, a 2023 study conducted in Pennsylvania, US, revealed that children who live closer to heavily-drilled natural gas wells are more likely to develop asthma and lymphoma. Among other health impacts, close proximity to fracking sites can also result in premature death. 


Given that marginalised communities are more likely to live closer to fracking sites, the plastic industry contributes to harmful social divides and racial discrimination.


“Here in Houston, along the Gulf Coast… we are facing an unprecedented boom in plastic production fed by fracking, that will put even more vulnerable communities in harm’s way,” says Villa.

Did you know?                                                                         There are ‘75-199 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean - UNESCO

A growing sea of problems for plastic 


Marine environments hold 80% of the world’s plastics. That’s 75-199 million tonnes of plastic waste swirling about oceans, seas and beaches. 


Not only does this threaten wildlife, but it seeps into the human food chain too, via the process of bio-accumulation; plastic particles bind with environmental pollutants, which animals then ingest. While fish consume 1,000 microplastics annually, the average adult ingests 35,000 to 62,000.



And the industry’s not slowing down: by 2050, the plastic industry is projected to quadruple compared to levels in the 1970s when plastic bottles first appeared on supermarket shelves.

The role of policy in plastic waste management

Unclear information, a lack of local recycling infrastructure and limited local support are among some of the factors contributing to poor plastic recycling rates.


But the responsibility of recycling rates should not fall on the shoulders of the consumer, says Edward Carver, London-based environmental journalist


“That suits the plastics industry just fine,” he says. “When Theresa May proposed a tax on plastic packaging—the world’s first—the British Plastics Federation said that it was “very disturbed” at her tone and pointed out that “littering” was a matter of “personal behavior.”


Policies that influence stakeholders further up the supply chain, e.g. product manufacturers, such as Coca Cola, who alone produce 100 billion plastic bottles every year, have the potential to have a greater systemic impact, versus schemes targeted at consumers.


A large proportion of plastic waste is the result of industry mismanagement. The OECD highlights that while 9% of plastic is recycled, a staggering 22% is mismanaged. 


The UK government, for example, exports three olympic-sized swimming pools-worth of waste every day. Most of this ends up in landfills of countries that have low-recycling rates or a reputation for burning waste illegally, such as Turkey and Malaysia, according to Greenpeace. search function

New policies are beginning to trickle down to government actions. For example,the 2021 directive on single-use plastics from the European Union, placed a ban on cutlery, straws, balloon sticks and cotton buds within EU Member State markets, as well as other products made from expanded polystyrene and oxo-degradable plastic.


Alternative recycling methods, such as Deposit Return Schemes (DRS), in which consumers pay an additional fee for purchasing plastic-based products, have shown some improvements in recycling rates for plastic waste streams. Though success typically varies, with meager participation from local municipalities and the non-binding nature of these schemes contributing to lower levels of engagement.


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A circular economy approach


Some entities are calling for a rethink of the plastics recycling industry altogether. 


While recycling remains an integral part to waste management, it is symptomatic of a linear approach system, which can be costly for economies. In a linear economy, raw materials for products are extracted, manufactured, used, then disposed of; this leads to the world throwing away between $80-120 billion worth of plastic every year.


“We need to rethink the way we make and use plastic,” argues James Woolven, Editor for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity championing the power of a circular economy approach, which aims to extend the lifespan of a product for as long as possible. 


Innovation in this way can not only preserve the environment, but benefit business’s bottom line, too.


“This means channeling our innovation efforts upstream, to the design stage. Design is the key word here. We need to design out waste and pollution… If we keep plastic in the economy, we keep it out of the environment.”



Similar articles:The Hidden Cost of Cotton

Researcher: Adrian Windeler / Online Editor: Ellis Jackson


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