Plastic Pollution’s Effect on the Economy and Environment

Plastic waste costs all of us money and health

Technician in Blue Coveralls and Orange Helmet Stands in Front of Pile of Compressed Plastic Waste.

Pramote Polyamate/Getty Images

 Plastic pollution is everywhere. It chokes and starves wildlife, distributes germs and toxins, and is eaten by fish and ultimately humans. It is even in the air we breathe. 

Plastic isn’t biodegradable. The only way to permanently eliminate it is by incineration.

Plastic has been a popular material because it is flexible, lightweight, and strong. That makes it ideal for packaging, its largest use. It’s also commonly used in clothing and single-use items such as straws. 

If the plastic waste problem can be solved, plastic would be a form of packaging superior to cardboard, metal, or paper. Its use reduces food waste, and its lighter weight lowers the consumption of fuel in transportation.

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics are minuscule particles of plastic each smaller than a grain of sand. Some are just the width of a human hair. Most microplastics come from the degradation of plastic waste. 

Most plastics are so strong chemically that neither the microbes in soil nor those in water can break down the elemental bonds. Microplastics could become small enough to enter the human bloodstream.

The ocean is contaminated by 8.3 million pieces of microplastics per cubic meter of water. Analysis has found that between 15% to 31% of all the plastic in the oceans comes from primary sources—small particles released from household and industrial products. Of this, 35% is from synthetic textiles, such as nylon and fleece. When these materials are washed, the fibers make their way through water treatment facilities and into the ocean. 

An additional 28% comes from tires that release plastic particles as they erode. A further 24% comes from city dust. The remaining 13% comes from road markings, marine coatings, personal care products, and plastic microbeads. These microplastics get into the ocean via road runoff (66%), wastewater (25%), and wind (7%).

More than 1,000 metric tons of microplastics fall from the sky, along with dust and rain. Even rainwater in Rocky Mountain National Park has microparticles, primarily blue fibers invisible to the human eye.

Scientists estimate that the average American eats 39,000 to 52,000 plastic particles in their food each year, only one way they are ingested. Many of the chemicals in these particles negatively affect human health and can cause cancer, anemia, and neurodegenerative disorders.

Causes of Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution is caused by inadequate waste disposal. Globally, more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since its first large-scale use in the 1950s. 

 About 6.3 billion metric tons of that has been turned into waste; of that, only 9% was recycled and 12% was incinerated. The rest went into landfills, rivers, and oceans. There, its durability, an asset in packaging, becomes a liability. It takes hundreds to thousands of years to degrade.  

By 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste.

On Jan. 1, 2018, China stopped accepting used plastic for recycling. It did this because most of the recyclables received from other countries like the U.S. were contaminated, which overwhelmed China’s recycling facilities and threatened its environment. As a result, many governments have simply ended their recycling programs. 

Effects of Plastic Pollution

Between 60% to 80% of all marine litter is plastic. A 2014 survey found that there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s oceans. The United Nations reported that 13 million metric tons of plastic wind up in the oceans every year. 

Plastic pollution costs $13 billion in economic damage to marine ecosystems per year. This includes losses to the fishing industry and tourism, as well as the cost to clean up beaches. For example, South Korea’s Geoje Island lost 63% of its tourists after marine debris washed up on its beaches. 

Plastic leaches chemicals, including dyes, metals, and flame-retardants. These are toxic to oxygen-producing microorganisms. 

The key microorganism affected by plastic pollution is the picoplankton Prochlorococcus, the most abundant photosynthetic organism on earth.  It produces 10% of the oxygen on the planet. When these microbes die, they stop producing oxygen, creating dead zones and suffocating sealife. They also stop absorbing carbon dioxide, worsening global warming.

Solutions to Plastic Pollution

To address this pervasive problem, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) launched the Clean Seas Campaign. Its goal is to eliminate microplastics from personal care products, ban or tax single-use plastic bags, and reduce other disposable plastic items by 2022. Sixty countries had joined the initiative as of June 2020.

Here are some other alternatives for reducing non-degradable plastic waste.


Local recycling is expensive for municipalities. For example, the city of Berkeley, California, must spend $75 per ton of plastic scrap to send it to a local recycler. Only half of it is clean enough to be recycled. The rest is contaminated with food and winds up in the dump. The cost to send the trash to Asia was only $35 per ton. But most types of plastic are not recyclable.  


On May 28, 2018, the European Commission urged the 28 members of the European Union to approve bans on single-use plastics. On Oct. 24, 2018, the European Parliament approved the rules. The EU's "Single-Use Plastics Directive" aims to recycle 90% of all plastic bottles. It prohibits plastic in drink stirrers, cutlery, plates, and straws. 

Although 127 countries have some type of regulations on plastic use, few have an outright ban. In the U.S., just eight states have banned single-use plastic bags.  

Comprehensive Approach

The proposed Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 in the U.S. would put the responsibility for plastic waste management on producers. The law, if enacted, would establish a national Pigouvian tax on carryout bags and refund customers who return beverage containers. 

A Pigouvian, or sin, tax is imposed on an activity that creates socially harmful externalities. The cost of these externalities is spread throughout society but the tax returns some of this expense to the person who committed the activity.

If approved, the legislation would phase out many single-use plastics, such as utensils, by Jan. 1, 2022. It would also limit how much plastic waste can be exported to other countries.

Waste-to-Energy Incinerators

Many European countries are burning plastic in a growing number of waste-to-energy (WTE) plants. The plants use the heat to make steam to generate electricity. State-of-the-art plants burn garbage at 850 degrees Celsius (1,560°F). This efficiently combusts waste while lowering levels of air pollutants. The plants also have advanced smokestack filtration technology to eliminate toxic emissions.

In the U.S., WTE plants face regulatory hurdles. Other electricity sources, such as natural gas, hydropower, and nuclear, are still cheap, which makes WTE plants less profitable by comparison. Renewable energy credits offered by some states make WTE more feasible.



Article Sources

  1. Science. "Plastic Rain in Protected Areas of the United States." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  2. American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made," Accessed June 30, 2020.

  3. United Nations Environment Programme. "Valuing Plastics: The Business Case for Measuring, Managing and Disclosing Plastic Use in the Consumer Goods Industry," Page 12. Download English PDF. Accessed June 30, 2020.

  4. Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography. "Patterns of Suspended and Salp-Ingested Microplastic Debris in the North Pacific Investigated with Epifluorescence Microscopy." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  5. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. "A Detailed Review Study on Potential Effects of Microplastics and Additives of Concern on Human Health," Page 10. Accessed June 30, 2020.

  6. International Union for the Conservation of Nature. "Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: A Global Evaluation of Sources," Page 21. Accessed June 30, 2020.

  7. U.S. Geological Survey. "It Is Raining Plastic." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  8. Science Direct. "Toxicity of Leachate from Weathering Plastics: An Exploratory Screening Study with Nitocra Spinipes." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  9. Yale Environment 360. "Piling Up: How China’s Ban on Importing Waste Has Stalled Global Recycling." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  10. PLoS ONE 9(12): e111913. Eriksen M, Lebreton LCM, Carson HS, Thiel M, Moore CJ, Borerro JC, et al. "Plastic Pollution in the World's Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea," Access June 30, 2020.

  11. United Nations Environment Program. "The State of Plastics," Page 2. Download English report. Accessed June 30, 2020.

  12. Marine Pollution Bulletin. "Estimation of Lost Tourism Revenue in Geoje Island from the 2011 Marine Debris Pollution Event in South Korea." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  13. Communications Biology. "Plastic Leachates Impair Growth and Oxygen Production in Prochlorococcus, the Ocean's Most Abundant Photosynthetic Bacteria. " Accessed June 30, 2020.

  14. MIT Technology Review. "Understanding the Ocean's Smallest Creatures." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  15. Clean Seas. "Tide Turners." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  16. The World. "America's Grungy 'Recycled' Plastic Is Creating Wastelands in Asia." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  17. City of Alexandria, VA. "Recycling Plastic: Complications and Limitations." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  18. European Commission. "European Parliament Votes for Single-Use Plastics Ban." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  19. World Resources Institute. "127 Countries Now Regulate Plastic Bags. Why Aren't We Seeing Less Pollution?" Accessed June 30, 2020.

  20. National Conference of State Legislatures. "State Plastic and Paper Bag Legislation." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  21. U.S. Congress. "H.R.5845 - Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  22. Eurostat Statistics Explained. "Municipal Waste Statistics," See "Municipal Waste Treatment." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  23. Yale Environment 360. "As China Pushes Waste-to-Energy Incinerators, Protests Are Mounting." Accessed June 30, 2020.

  24. Waste 360. "The State of Waste-to-Energy in the U.S." Accessed June 30, 2020.