Before We Get Rid Of Plastic, We Have To Figure Out How Much There Actually Is

Quantifying the plastic problem in dollar terms is the only way it will get fixed.

Before We Get Rid Of Plastic, We Have To Figure Out How Much There Actually Is
[Image: Pile of plastic via Shutterstock]

“There’s a great future in plastics” Mr. McGuire told Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 film The Graduate, and he was right. We now use plastics for many things, and Braddock might have had a nice career if he’d followed the old man’s advice. The industry produced a staggering 317 million tons of plastic in 2012, up from 1.9 million tons in 1950.


But if the age of of plastic has been good for many things, the environment hasn’t been one of them. From the enormous volume of plastic litter in the world’s oceans, to the substantial CO2 emissions from plastics manufacturing, the industry’s impacts have been pervasive. It’s only now that we’re beginning to see the negative side, even if stories about “great garbage patches” are misleading and the problem isn’t well understood.

A new report does something the garbage patch metaphors don’t: it quantifies the problem in dollar terms. The numbers are huge. The consumer goods industry alone is responsible for $75 billion a year in “natural capital costs”–costs to the environment that aren’t currently absorbed by companies or consumers.

“The cost comes from a range of environmental impacts including those on oceans and the loss of valuable resources when plastic waste is sent to landfill rather than being recycled,” says Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environmental Program, which supported the research. “The most significant upstream impact is greenhouse gas emissions released from producing plastic feedstock, which is responsible for almost a third of the total natural capital costs.”

The report, which was written by Trucost, a research group specializing in natural cost analysis, looks at the amount of plastic used by 16 industries, from furniture to tobacco. Food accounts for 23% of the $75 billion environmental burden, followed by soft drinks (12%) and non-durable household goods (10%). Those industries are particularly impactful, the report says, because they not only produce a lot of plastic, but use plastic designed to be disposed of quickly.

The report says more than 30% of the natural capital costs come from the manufacturing of plastic feedstock, which is derived from oil. Marine pollution accounts for $13 billion of the overall number, with non-durable household goods and soft drinks contributing most in dollar terms.

By measuring impacts, the report aims to put pressure on companies to address their responsibilities. The analysis was commissioned by the Plastic Disclosure Project, which wants to do for plastic pollution what the Carbon Disclosure Project has done for corporate carbon emissions. Once companies start measuring and disclosing their plastic impacts, they’re more likely to do something about them, it argues.


“By publicly reporting on plastic management, companies can demonstrate to stakeholders including governments, investors and campaign groups that they take their environmental responsibilities seriously,” the report says. “Companies that move quickest to report are most likely to gain credit by being seen as a leader on the issue.”

Measuring plastic use may not all be about reducing risk. There could be opportunities as well, including reductions in packaging costs, moving to closed-loop processes where raw inputs are minimized, and gaining environmentally-conscious customers, the report says.

Either way, plastic pollution is something we’re probably going to be more conscious about in the future. It’s not only up to companies to fix the problem–but they do surely have a large role to play.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.