The social costs of plastic pollution are huge, ranging in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The number one culprit behind these massive costs are the chemical additives. But do the polluters pay? Unfortunately not. Plastic producers can continue to pollute our environment without any liability for the environmental and financial harms they cause society. There is, however, an easy solution to all this. It’s just a matter of nipping the problem in the bud.
Plastics are big business. In 2021, the global plastics market was a US $600 billion per year business. And the amounts that the plastics industry produces are staggering — almost 500 million tons every year.
But, as we all know, plastic pollution is one of the major threats to our environment. A new report from the Minderoo Foundation has delved into the social costs of plastic pollution and found out that the chemicals added to plastics are probably the biggest culprits.
Social costs of several hundred billion dollars every year
Three chemical substance families have been specifically recognized for creating major costs related to plastic pollution. These are bisphenols, phthalates and flame retardants. Both bisphenols and phthalates in plastic are estimated to cost society over US $100 billion per year — each. To put a bit of perspective on that sum, one hundred billion dollars is the entire GDP of Slovenia.
“Total cost for these three groups is about two and a half times the GDP of Slovenia”
For flame retardants in plastic, the social costs were estimated to US $10-100 billion per year. So, the total cost for the use of these three groups of toxic chemicals in plastic is about two and a half times the GDP of an Eastern European country.
Social costs relate to the economic burden of harm done to people, nature and economy that society will have to carry — and ultimately pay for. One would think that the polluters should pay for the harms they have caused. But unfortunately, this is not the case.
Minimal responsibility falls on the shoulders of the plastics industry. No polluter pays principle. No extended producer responsibility. Only profit. Plastics producers continue to pour out plastic laden with toxic chemicals without any interference or accountability.
The enormous social costs of plastic pollution coupled with the fact that companies do not need to take any responsibility for the harm they cause point out the massive flaws of the risk mitigation approach. This approach has — time and again — proven to be utterly insufficient to protect human health and the environment.
So, how can we even out the costs?
A way to balance the scales
Obviously, something needs to change. One approach that can — at least partly — balance the scales is for more companies to adopt a hazard-based approach.
“A hazard-based approach would nip the problem in the bud by not adding toxic chemicals”
This would drastically reduce the potential for future harm caused by chemical additives to plastics.
The hazard-based approach looks at the intrinsic hazardous properties of chemicals instead of just speculating on exposure risks. It would, at the same time, also provide an efficient way to ensure that costs are shared more logically since companies will need to spend more money on development of safe and sustainable solutions.
Ultimately, a regulation pushing companies towards these solutions will be more effective. But responsible companies are already now switching to this approach and taking responsibility for product content and consumer health.
With a hazard-based approach we could nip the problem in the bud by not adding toxic chemicals to plastics in the first place. This way we would avoid chemical pollution before it causes harm to our environment and our bodies.
And before the social costs exceed entire Eastern European economies.