The Cost of Throwaway Plastics Outweigh the Benefit

By Markus Eriksen

(photo:China Photos, Getty Images)

One thing we've done effectively with audiences is to have a conversation about the cost and benefit of plastics.  We first talk about all of the benefits, like industrial and technological applications, medical uses, and consumer durable goods and single-use throwaways.  They all have benefits to society.  We communicate better, transport goods easily, keep things sanitary, and save lives.  But the costs vary widely.  The pre-consumer costs are the same: petroleum extraction, polymerization, fabrication into goods, then transportation.  The post-consumer cost is where we see differences.  Medical applications of plastic have tremendous benefit, and because much of the waste is considered a bio-hazard, it is handled carefully, even incinerated on-site in many hospitals.   Industrial/technological applications of plastic often make their way through society to the eventual landfill, recycle center or incinerator, with little opportunity to see the sea.  Only when the industrial application is for the maritime industry do we see loss of nets, buoys and fishing crates.  In fact, on our first crossing of the South Atlantic from Rio to Cape Town, the largest pieces of plastic pollution we encountered were primarily these three types of objects.  So the post consumer cost of medical plastics and industrial/technological plastics, which include ingestion and entanglement by marine life, navigational hazards, and blighted coasts and communities, may or may not outweigh the benefits to society. 

When we look at single-use throwaways, like plastic bags, bottles, bottle caps, utensils, cups and lids, stir sticks, plastic film and other packaging, many hygiene products, cigarette butts, and thousands of others, we begin to see the cost is a greater burden to society than the benefit.  Although most of this is recovered through municipal waste management, and some through voluntary recycling, there is still a significant amount that becomes litter.  Throwaway plastics in the marine environment quickly break into microplastic particles, which we have found in our trawls around the world, washed up in heaps on remote beaches, and in the stomachs of countless marine organisms.  Throwaway plastics cost municipalities, and taxpayers, millions through waste management, from pulling plastic bags out of trees, digging them out of sewer pipes, netting them from rivers, sweeping them from streets, hand-removing them from beaches and roadsides, and then burying or burning them in landfills or incinerators.  These cost arguably outweigh the short-term benefit. 

We must stop using plastic for single-use, throwaway consumer products and packaging.  Sure, we could improve recycling strategies, but this will not stop the trickle of intentional and unintentional litter that leaves the land. Cities is developed nations do the best they can to mitigate plastic waste from the environment, and tax citizens to pay for it.  In developing nations there is no infrastructure, so we see mountains of plastic pollution choking waterways and flowing out to sea.  Many companies see these difficulties, and have made the changes on their own.  Many have not.  Extended Producer Responsibility and bans or fees on specific single-use throwaway products, are the pieces of legislation that are working around the world.

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