This is a short guide outlining the economic impact of plastic across key areas in society.
Summary – Economic Impact Of Plastic
Value Of Plastic Markets
The global plastic market is estimated to be worth trillions to the global economy
Plastics packaging materials and unlaminated film and sheet manufacturing are mentioned by one source as being the plastic segments that contribute the highest share to that value
Estimated Future Value Of Plastic Markets
Several estimates indicate plastic markets will continue to grow year on year globally in the future
Positive Economic Impact Of Plastic
Includes but isn’t limited to:
– Creation of jobs and employment – estimated to be millions of jobs alone in the US. There’s the production of plastic, but also industries like plastic recycling that employ people
– Cost savings (in resource efficiency, production, transport and freight, and more).
Plastic as a material can be cheap for businesses to produce and use for example, and those cheaper costs can be passed on to consumers
– Better profitability for companies
– Affordability for consumers (due to cheaper costs for businesses, and due to resource efficiency and increased productivity)
Negative Economic Impact Of Plastic
Includes but isn’t limited to:
– Costs associated with plastic pollution on land and in the ocean
– Cost associated with picking up or cleaning up plastic on land (litter), and in the ocean
– Costs associated with plastic waste management
– Some types of plastic recycling aren’t profitable or can be subsidised at a loss due to local policy on recycling
Is Plastic A Net Economic Gain Or Loss For Society?
On one hand, plastic helps create economic growth, save money, and make things more affordable with the amount of uses it serves, and the benefits it provides across society.
Some of these economic benefits are quantifiable and some aren’t.
But, there’s also quantifiable and unquantifiable costs of plastic to consider.
It may be hard to truly quantify how much plastic pollution and environmental degradation costs, or, what the long term costs of plastics that take a long time to break down, and plastics that break down into micro and nano plastics are.
Uncertainty might also exist across various plastic related issues such as research and definitive studies on the impact of BPA (and BPS), phthalates, plastic leaching.
So, it might be hard to say what the true net economic gain or loss for plastic is.
Value Of Plastic Markets To The Economy
From the data below, we can see that:
– The global market for plastic is worth trillions to the global economy
– The biggest segment for the global market for plastic might be plastics packaging materials and unlaminated film and sheet manufacturing
– Different major plastic segments are worth hundreds of billions to the global economy
Global Plastic Market
The global market for plastic products … was worth $1.1 trillion in 2016 (resource-recycling.com)
Largest & Most Valuable Plastic Segments In The Global Plastic Market
[Of the $1.1 trillion global market for plastic products in 2016 …] The biggest segment is plastics packaging materials and unlaminated film and sheet manufacturing, which accounts for about 20% of the total (resource-recycling.com)
ptonline.com identifies that the estimated value of total plastic shipments in the US is over $500 billion …
In 2013 [plastic packaging added to the market was] valued at US$260 billion [and since the year 2000, the plastic packaging market has grown each year, and plastic as a global share of material used for packaging has grown too] (triplepundit.com)
Bottled Water Industry
Globally, we spend over $100 billion every year on bottled water … [and in theory] one year’s revenue from these [plastic water bottle] corporations could be used to permanently resolve the global water crisis and they would still have a few billion dollars left to pocket (shopkablo.com)
The bottled water industry was valued at US$185 billion in 2015 (businesswire.com)
This is just bottled water though – obviously there are many other beverages that use plastic bottles as well.
How Many People Plastic Employs
[In the US, plastic industry employment varies state to state, but] the total number of employees is 1.76 million (ptonline.com)
Estimated Future Value Of Plastic Markets To The Economy
Several estimates indicate plastic markets will continue their growth in the future.
Several estimates for future plastic industry growth are:
The global market for plastic products is growing at about 3% year on year … [and it] will grow to $1.2 trillion by 2020 (resource-recycling.com)
The Global Plastics Market is expected to reach USD654.38 billion by 2020 (prnewswire.com)
Unquantifiable Economic Benefits Of Plastic
Plastic delivers many direct economic benefits, with several of them being listed above.
But plastic also contributes unquantifiable economic benefits to the economy. Another way to say this might be that these benefits aren’t easy to collect data on.
Some examples might include saving resources and resource efficiency (such as packaging, or the product that the plastic is protecting or covering e.g. food), or the economic value that plastic used in other industries helps create.
A few examples include:
– Plastic reduces food waste by increasing shelf life, and its relative light weight reduces fuel consumption for transporting goods (triplepundit.com)
– Plastic also has other important uses and important benefits that allow economies and societies to perform critical functions and activities
Cost To Clean Up Plastic Litter On Land
Some estimates put the cost to clean up litter in the US alone at 11 billion dollars a year, or 30 cents for each piece of litter
Nationwide, litter clean up efforts amount to as much as $11 billion per year [for items like plastic bags and wraps]
Even though not all of that is from disposable bags, it costs 30 cents to clean up each piece of litter out of our cities, streets, and roadsides.
Cost Of Plastic Pollution In The Ocean
How Much Plastic Ends Up In The Ocean
About 10% of all plastic might end up in the ocean:
‘Of the 260 million tons of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the Ocean, according to a Greenpeace report … Seventy percent of the mass eventually sinks, damaging life on the seabed’ (plastic-pollution.org)
Cost Of Plastic Pollution In The Ocean
According to a study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, plastic pollution in the ocean costs society up to $2.5 trillion a year (waste360.com)
Plastics finding their way into the world’s oceans costs approximately AUD$17.3 billion per year in environmental damage to marine ecosystems.
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) estimates that the cost to the tourism, fishing and shipping industries was AUD$1.6 billion in [the Asia Pacific] region alone.
Local authorities have to bear the cost of cleaning up plastic litter from beaches, maintaining litter traps and bins etc. The cost on local government to manage litter in NSW [Australia] is … $132 million per annum.
Cost To Remove Plastic From The Ocean
Removing plastic from the ocean may not be profitable or financially feasible in some ways.
… it costs more than $5 to gather a kilo of plastic from the ocean, while that same plastic will only be valued at – at best – 30 cents [i.e. it’s not profitable]
With about 8 billion kilos (8,000 tonnes) of plastic added to the ocean each year, the costs – and losses – involved are huge
The Ocean Cleanup … can collect about five tons of ocean plastic per month
The total cost of System 001 is about 21 million euros ($24.6 million U.S.)
[Plastic] has a wider and harder to quantify economic impact on lost marine life or reduced beach and water quality … These damages, estimated at US$1.25 billion annually, imply that recovering marine plastics is worthwhile.
But … research suggests that it might not be financially viable to do so.
Plastic causes $13 in damages per kilogram per year
Miscellaneous Costs Of Plastic Waste
Plastic waste may cost the economy in terms of reduced environmental value, and also the value lost in the packaging material when it isn’t re-used.
Reduced Environmental Value From Plastic Pollution
Plastic waste is also believed to cost up to $33,000 per ton in reduced environmental value (theguardian.com)
Loss Associated With Plastic Packaging Waste
One estimate of the estimated loss to the global economy of plastic packaging waste is:
[Economically] … Plastic packaging waste represents an $80 billion loss to the global economy every year (unilever.com.au)
Lost Value Of Plastic Packaging
95 percent of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80 billion to $120 billion, is lost to the economy.
Much of it is wasted in a short, single-use, linear flow [and] Only 5 percent of the material value of plastic packaging is retained for subsequent use
Unquantifiable Costs Of Plastic To The Economy
Some of the unquantifiable, or hard to quantify costs of plastic to the economy might include:
– The cost of plastic in terms of lost income to other industries (such as the tourism industry)
– The true cost of degradation of ecosystems (such as loss of wildlife, or damage to habitats and natural resources)
– The cost to address environmental issues, human health issues, wildlife issues, and other problems that plastic can contribute to
[Plastic] has a wider and harder to quantify economic impact on lost marine life or reduced beach and water quality … These damages [are] estimated at US$1.25 billion annually … (9theconversation.com)
Is Plastic Recycling Profitable?
Only some types of plastic are recyclable, and only some types of plastic and plastic products/items are profitable to recycle
Some plastics lose their quality and economic value every time they are recycled, which impacts how recycled plastic material can be used in new products
It may also be cheaper for companies to produce new plastic in some cases rather than recycle used plastic items
Read more about the pros and cons of recycling plastic in this guide.