Pollution Facts and Effect on the Economy

The Costs of Air, Water, and Plastic Pollution

plastic bags in ocean

 Photo by smartboy10/Getty Images

The two biggest pollution problems are in the air and water. They cause billions in damage to the environment and to health. A growing problem is plastic pollution, which is damaging our food supply. 

Air Pollution

The top air pollution components are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, volatile organic compounds, and fine particulate matter.  The most damaging is sulfur dioxide.

Power generation is the leading cause of air pollution.

Of those, coal-generated plants are the worst. The other causes are oil and gas extraction, coal mining, and oil refineries.

In 2011, air pollution caused  $131 billion in damages. It's better than in 2002, when the damage cost $175 billion. The improvement was a result of increased regulations. Power plants began filtering out pollutants from their emissions. States enacted clean air regulations.

Most of the cost falls on those who become sick from the pollution. Forty percent of Americans live where the air is unhealthy. They are at greater risk of asthma, lung cancer, and respiratory problems. In 2015, 133.9 million people suffered from unhealthy levels of air pollution. It was more than the 125 million who suffered from 2013-2015. 

The Association also reported that air pollution rose due to high particle counts caused by wildfires. Climate change also causes wildfires by increasing drought conditions.

Climate change is making air pollution worse. The American Lung Association found that ozone pollution worsened in 2014-2016.  Higher temperatures increased the amount of ozone in the air.

On March 23, 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it will relax vehicle efficiency rules. President Obama imposed these rules as part of the 2009 Auto Bailout.

He wanted to force U.S. carmakers to improve fuel efficiency standards. There would be three benefits. First, it would lower pollution levels. Second, it would lessen the increase of greenhouse gases, thus slowing the rate of global warming. Third, it would make U.S. carmakers more competitive in foreign markets. 

On March 26, seven environmental groups sued the EPA for relaxing pollution standards. 

In 1955, the federal government became concerned about combating air pollution. The Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 funded research to find out what caused air pollution. But the Clean Air Act of 1963 was the first to reduce air pollution. The Air Quality Act of 1967 regulated interstate transport of pollutants.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 established air quality standards. It required states to meet those standards or face penalties. It also allowed them to control motor vehicle emissions. Congress established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement these requirements. The 1990 amendments controlled 189 toxic pollutants. As a result, air pollution has decreased

Most important, it phased out chlorofluorocarbons that were depleting the ozone layer. Stratospheric ozone absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation.

It causes skin cancer, suppresses immune systems, and damages plant life. In 2018, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration found that the hole in the ozone layer is healing.

The Trump administration is weakening the Act. It wants to include feedback from state and local governments and businesses on the economic impact of federal pollution limits. The maximum levels for smog would be the first to come up for review in October 2020. It would weaken the Act by allowing localities to set the standards. They don't want the cost of enforcing them, so they would argue to weaken them.

The Obama administration allowed California to set air quality standards that were higher than the federal requirements. As a result, auto manufacturers designed cars to meet California's standards, improving air quality everywhere.

The Trump administration has proposed freezing fuel-efficiency standards in 2021. It would challenge California's ability to set its own rules. If instead he were to keep the Obama-era standards, it would prevent 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions between 2012 and 2025.

Water Pollution

Greenpeace suggests that we stop eating meat, dairy, and eggs. Production of these food items contributes 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It also causes deforestation to grow the crops to feed animals. It pollutes rivers, leading to dead zones in the oceans.

Plastic Pollution

The world has produced more plastic in the last 10 years than in the entire previous 100 years. Half of it is for single use, such as straws, plastic bags, and Q-tips. As a result, 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year from plastic pollution in the oceans. A recent study found that 44 percent of all seabird species, 22 percent of whales and dolphins, and all sea turtle species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies. Scientists forecast that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 87,000 tons of plastic trash that sits between the United States and Hawaii. Ocean currents have deposited the 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish that covers an area four times the size of California. Half of it is fishing nets. 

Plastic doesn't biodegrade. Instead, it disintegrates into micro particles that fish eat. When we eat the fish, we eat the plastic as well.

To fight back, some countries are proposing bans on single-use plastic. Belize, Taiwan, and England are considering such proposals. Several cities, such as Seattle, Miami Beach, Oakland, Berkeley, and Malibu, have already done so. Many hotel chains, such as Four Seasons, Marriott, and Anatara, have already banned plastic straws.

On January 1, 2017, China stopped accepting used plastic for recycling. Contaminated recyclables threatened China's public health and environment. As a result, plastic refuse is piling up in Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United States until officials find a solution. As a result, some recyclers in California are sending their refuse to the landfill. They can't afford to recycle it. Before the ban, China had processed half of the world’s exports of waste paper, metals, and used plastic. In 2016, it was 7.3 million tons. 

On May 28, 2018, the European Commission urged the 28 members of the European Union to approve bans on single-use plastics. It would recycle 90 percent of all plastic bottles. It would prohibit plastic in drink stirrers, cutlery, plates, and straws. The ban would avoid 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. It would eliminate 46 billion bottles, 36 billion straws, 16 billion coffee cups, and 2 billion plastic takeout containers each year.