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

Nine out of 10 people in the world breathe highly polluted air. According to the World Health Organization, pollution kills 7 million people each year. 

Around 40% of Americans live where the air is unhealthy. In 2015, 133.9 million people suffered from unhealthy levels of air pollution. It was more than the 125 million who suffered between 2013 and 2015. They are at greater risk of asthma, lung cancer, and respiratory problems. Research in 2018 found it's also linked to Alzheimer's and dementia. 

In 2011, air pollution caused $131 billion in damages. It was less than the $175 billion in 2002. Most of the cost falls on those who become sick from pollution.

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

The leading cause of air pollution is power generation. Of those, coal-generated plants are the worst. The other causes are oil and gas extraction, coal mining, and oil refineries.

In 1955, the federal government first became concerned about combatting air pollution. The Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 funded research to find out what caused air pollution. 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 allowed them to control motor vehicle emissions. Congress established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement these requirements. 

A 2017 study compared the lifetime earnings of children born each year between 1969 and 1974. It found that those born after the Clean Air Act earned at least $4,300 more over their lifetimes than those born earlier.

The 1990 amendments to the Act controlled 189 toxic pollutants. Most important among these were chlorofluorocarbons that were depleting the Earth's ozone layer. Stratospheric ozone absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation. The radiation 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.

In 2009, President Barack Obama used the auto bailout to force automakers to improve fuel efficiency standards. The goal was to cut 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles sold between 2012 and 2025. Those greenhouse gases cause global warming. The standards would also make the U.S. auto industry more competitive in foreign markets that already required stronger emission standards.

In 2011, the Obama administration allowed California to require vehicles to average 50 miles per gallon by 2025. As of 2017, U.S. autos averaged 31.8 miles per gallon. California's goal is higher than those set by the 1970 Clean Air Act. Twelve other states, representing more than a third of the country’s auto market, follow California’s standards. As a result, auto manufacturers designed cars to meet California's standards, improving air quality everywhere. It would prevent 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions between 2012 and 2025. 

In August 2015, the Obama administration launched the Clean Power Plan. The EPA set custom goals for each state to cut power plant emissions. To get there, states could switch from coal to gas, renewables, or nuclear. They could boost energy efficiency or enact carbon taxes. The plan's goal was to cut carbon pollution by 32% from 2005 levels. That would prevent 4,500 early deaths and 90,000 childhood asthma attacks each year. 

The federal government should do more to reduce air pollution. The biggest threat is from climate change. The American Lung Association found that ozone pollution worsened in 2014-2016. Higher temperatures increased the amount of ozone in the lower atmosphere. The Association also reported that air pollution rose due to high particle counts caused by wildfires.  Climate change worsens wildfires by increasing drought conditions. In August 2018, smoke from western wildfires made Seattle and Portland the most polluted cities in the world.

Instead, the government is doing less. On March 23, 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would relax vehicle efficiency rules. It is challenging California's ability to set its own air quality standards. On March 26, 2018, seven environmental groups sued the EPA for relaxing those standards. 

President Donald Trump wants to repeal California's 50 mile-per-gallon goal. The National Association of Auto Manufacturers wants to lower it to 45 to 49 miles per gallon by 2025. 

The Trump administration is also weakening the Clean Power Plan by allowing localities to set their own standards. They don't want the cost of enforcing them, so they would argue to weaken them. The maximum levels for smog would be the first to come up for review in October 2020. 

Water Pollution

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%.

To stop the blooms, Greenpeace suggests that we stop eating meat, dairy, and eggs. Production of these food items pollutes rivers, leading to blooms and dead zones when they run into the oceans. Algae blooms also occur in lakes, affecting drinking water. Algae blooms have become worse as the oceans warmed. Algae benefits from higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Levels have doubled since 1900.

Animal-based foods contribute 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions. They cause deforestation to grow the crops to feed animals. 

The oceans are also polluted by acidification. This is the increase in carbon dioxide the oceans absorb from the atmosphere. Scientists estimate 25% of all carbon emitted goes into the oceans. This changes the chemical makeup of the water. The pH level falls, making the water more acidic. Since the 1800s, the pH level has fallen by 0.1 pH units. It doesn't sound like much, but the pH scale is logarithmic like the Richter scale that measures earthquakes. As a result, it represents a 30% increase in acidity.

It's already damaging the $100 billion shellfish industry on America's West Coast.  Coral bleaching has increased nearly fivefold in the past 40 years. In the early 1980s, bleaching only occurred every 25 to 30 years. By 2016, bleaching occurred once every 5.9 years. More than half of 100 reefs studied lost more than 30% of their corals in 2015 or 2016. As a result, 50% of the world's coral reefs are dead.

High water temperatures toxify the algae living in coral. The coral polyps expel the algae so that only the white framework remains. Coral can tolerate intermittent bleaching, but recurrent events will kill it.

The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs is more than $100 million. Local economies also receive billions from tourists who like to visit reefs. Coral reefs support the life cycle of over 25% of all marine species. More than 500 million people depend on them for food or fishing income. Coral also protect shorelines from unchecked erosion.

By 2100, acidity levels will be 50% higher. That's the highest since the Miocene era 20 million years ago. Algae, kelp, and seagrasses may benefit from higher CO2 levels. But the acidity will erode the shells of oysters, clams, and mussels, depleting that food source. Corals and calcareous plankton will also suffer. They are the food source for many other sea creatures, including krill, fish, and whales. More than a billion people rely on fish as their primary food source. 

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. and 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.