The world cranks out a staggering 430 million metric tons of new plastics each year, and there’s no sign of this production frenzy slowing down. Plastics have permeated every corner of our lives. Microplastics have infiltrated our bodies, and our surroundings are drowning in the material. Disturbingly, experts predict that by 2050, our expansive oceans could contain more plastic than fish.
Plastics also imply a lot of social costs. A new study — published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society — now estimates that plastic-related exposures cost the US Government $249 billion in health costs in 2018. This figure accounts for the direct and indirect health costs linked to the production, use, and disposal of plastic materials. These costs include medical expenses, productivity losses due to illness, and the societal impact of various health conditions.
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The numbers presented in the study echo the findings of the Minderoo Foundation report from 2022, which states that plastic pollution and the chemicals added to plastics cost society billions of dollars every year. The UN Environment Programme has similarly projected the social and economic costs of global plastic pollution to reach up to as much as $600 billion per year.
Toxic chemicals are the biggest culprits
The reason for the negative health impacts, and the subsequent health costs, is the toxic chemicals that plastics to a large degree are comprised of. According to the study, the main culprit behind the huge social costs is polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Out of the total sum, $159 billion is attributed to PBDEs, which are commonly used as flame retardants.
Brominated flame retardants are used in a wide variety of products, including electronics, furniture and textiles, to delay the onset of a fire. From a safety point of view, this function makes them important in fulfilling certain safety standards. But the flip side is that they are toxic. Brominated flame retardants are, for example, associated with learning disabilities, impaired motor skills and reduced cognitive functions as well as overall negative effects on children’s physical and mental development. Several have also been found to be persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic to the environment. PBDEs are strictly regulated for use in the EU; however, there are several possibilities for exceptions.
Phthalates and PFAS are two additional chemical groups contributing to the high health costs linked to plastics. Phthalates account for $67 billion of the total social costs, while PFAS account for $22 billion, according to the study.
Waiting for a Global Plastics Treaty
Unfortunately, chemicals in plastics are not very regulated. While some national and regional regulations address acceptable concentrations of hazardous chemicals in specific plastic products, less than 1% of all plastics chemicals are subject to international regulation. Surprisingly, there are currently no policies mandating transparent reporting of chemicals in the plastics value chain or comprehensive monitoring of chemicals in recycled materials.
This is where the ongoing discussion about a Global Plastics Treaty comes in. In 2022, 175 countries came together to adopt a resolution to end plastic pollution — a historic step toward an international legally binding instrument to tackle plastic pollution. The treaty will be an important instrument to end plastic pollution. According to the schedule, an agreement should be reached by the end of 2024. What’s worrying ChemSec is if the final agreement is not ambitious enough.
It will be extremely important for the treaty to deal with harmful chemicals prevalent in plastics such as PFAS, bisphenols, flame retardants, and phthalates. This would not only help the planet recover, but it would also save billions of dollars in healthcare costs.