How Air, Water, and Plastic Pollution Affect the Economy

The Rising Costs of Pollution and What Can Be Done About It

Reusable water bottle

Photo by robynleight / 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

Air pollution kills 7 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization. In 2013, those deaths cost the global economy $225 billion in lost labor. Around the world, nine out of 10 people breathe highly polluted air.

In the United States, air pollution caused $131 billion in damages in 2011. It was less than the $175 billion in 2002. Those who become sick from pollution bear the most of the cost. In 2015, 133.9 million people suffered from unhealthy levels of air pollution. They are at greater risk of developing asthma, lung cancer, and respiratory problems. Research in 2018 found it's also linked to Alzheimer's and dementia. 

The costs also fall on school and work performance. A study found that air pollution lowered the productivity of pear packers in Northern California. Another study found that high pollution days made Chinese call center workers take more breaks. A third study found that high carbon monoxide levels led to more absences in Texas school districts.

The leading cause of air pollution is power generation. Coal-generated plants are the worst offenders. These are followed by oil refineries, oil and gas extraction, and coal mining. Other sources involve processes in industrial, chemical, and agricultural production. Ammonia and methane emitted from fertilizer and livestock combined with vehicle emissions to create airborne particulates. A 2016 study found that these agricultural emissions topped those from any other man-made source. 

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

Climate change is worsening air pollution. Climate change exacerbates wildfires, which cause high particulate counts, by increasing drought conditions. In August 2018, smoke from western wildfires made Seattle and Portland the most polluted cities in the world.

In 1955, the federal government has been concerned about combatting pollution. One of the most salient laws was the Clean Air Act of 1970 which allowed states to control motor vehicle emissions. Congress established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement these requirements. In 2009, President Barack Obama used the auto bailout to force automakers to improve fuel efficiency standards. In August 2015, the Obama administration launched the Clean Power Plan. The EPA set custom goals for each state to cut power plant emissions.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is weakening the Clean Power Plan by allowing localities to set their own standards. On March 23, 2018, the EPA announced it would relax vehicle efficiency rules. On March 26, 2018, seven environmental groups sued the EPA for relaxing those standards.

Water Pollution

The EPA warns that 46% of U.S. streams, 21% of lakes, 18% of coastal waters, and 32% of the nation’s wetlands are polluted. Common contaminants are bacteria and heavy metals, such as phosphorus, mercury, and nitrogen.

Water pollution is caused by four major factors: untreated sewage, agricultural practices, global warning, and ocean acidification.

In August 2018, a red algae bloom off the southwest coast of Florida created a state of emergency. The state has promised $1.5 million in emergency funding. Between 2004 and 2007, red tide clean-up efforts cost the state between $11,114 and $250,000 per event. The vapors increase hospital admissions by 50%.

Agricultural by-product runoffs pollute rivers, lakes, and oceans and cause algae blooms. Global warming raises water temperatures, creating ideal conditions for red algae to thrive in huge numbers.

Water pollution is costing the U.S. economy in these four key areas:

  1. Public health – Because of algae blooms, the cost to treat water from the Great lakes in Minnesota, for instance, have risen by almost $4.00 per 1,000 gallons.
  2. Tourism – Almost $1 billion in tourism revenue is lost annually. Local economies that receive billions from tourists who like to visit reefs or engage in aquatic activities are being threatened by coral bleaching, algal blooms, and contaminated waters.
  3. Fisheries – Pollution and ocean acidificationare damaging the $100 billion shellfish industry on America's West Coast. Coral bleaching has increased nearly fivefold in the past 40 years. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs is more than $100 million.
  4. Real Estate – The EPA found that values of waterfront properties near polluted waters dropped by as much as 25%, compared to those situated by clean water.

To combat water pollution, the government must:

  1. Update the 1972 Clean Water Act and other local and state laws to reflect current conditions.
  2. Impose Pigouvian taxes.
  3. Increase funding for research into water pollution solutions, such as bioremediation. 

Plastic Pollution

The plastic industry produces 400 million tons of plastic a year. Plastic is popular because it is flexible, lightweight, and sustainable. But 8 million tons ends up as waste. Only 9% gets recycled. Of the plastic that goes into the oceans, only 1% stays on the surface. The rest sinks to the ocean floor. Scientists estimate that half of the waste is discarded fishing nets.

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.  If the plastic waste problem can be solved, plastic would be a superior form of packaging to cardboard, metal, or paper.

Around the world, people buy 1 million plastic bottles a minute. Half of them end up in landfills or the ocean. 

How bad is the waste problem? Plastic kills 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year. A recent study found that 44% of all seabird species, 22% 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.

Each year, 500,000 metric tons of plastic microfibers enter the ocean. It comes from the washing of synthetic textiles, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Newly-purchased polyester fleece is the worst. Plankton ingests these fibers. When fish eat them, they ingest the plastic as well. Scientists have even found these microfibers inside the stomachs of tiny shrimplike creatures at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Patagonia and other manufacturers are looking into ways to pretreat the fabric.

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 cover an area four times the size of California. The Arctic Ocean is clogged with 300 billion bits of plastic.

Plastic doesn't biodegrade. Instead, it disintegrates into microparticles that fish eat. When we eat fish, we eat the plastic as well. Scientists estimate there are more microplastic particles in the sea than there are stars in the Milky Way.

Plastic costs $13 billion in economic damage to marine ecosystems each year. It is now widely recognized to be a serious threat to the marine environment. It also leaches chemicals that harm oxygen-producing microorganisms. This suffocates sea life and creates dead zones.

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 Anantara, have already banned plastic straws. In January 2019, the island nation of Dominica banned all plastic and styrofoam single-use food containers.

On January 1, 2017, China stopped accepting used plastic for recycling. Contaminated recyclables threatened China's public health and environment. 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. 

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. Many recyclers are sending their refuse to the landfill. They can't afford to recycle it.

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% 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.

On June 5, 2018, the United Nations focused its World Environmental Day on "Beat Plastic Pollution." It inspired India to ban single-use plastics by 2022. Britain, Scotland, Chile, and Taiwan have followed suit. 

In 2019, the U.S. state of New Jersey proposed the most far-reaching set of plastics regulations in the nation. It is considering a bill to ban plastic straws, foam cups, and plastic bags. 

In May 2019, 187 countries added plastic to the list of hazardous materials regulated by the Basel Convention. Countries cannot ship plastic waste to other countries without the recipients' approval. Even though the United States didn't sign the agreement, it can no longer ship its plastic to the 187 countries. As a result, containers of plastic waste are stuck in U.S. ports.

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