Plastic is used in everything from electronic devices, including computers and smartphones, to food packaging. However, plastic also has a big impact on the environment.
There is a mass of garbage in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast twice the size of Texas, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It outnumbers marine life by 6 to 1. That plastic swirling around in the Pacific makes its way into the food chain as marine life eat small pieces of plastic.
The material is also energy-intensive and requires petroleum to be manufactured. Another key issue with plastics manufacturing is the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs): More than 30 percent of the natural capital costs from GHG emissions released upstream in the supply chain come from extracting raw materials and manufacturing plastic feed-stock, according to a report from the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP). Marine pollution has an additional natural capital cost of at least $13 billion.
The total natural capital cost of plastic used in the consumer goods industry is more than $75 billion a year, the report finds. Food companies are the biggest part of that figure, responsible for 23 percent of the total natural capital cost. That figure is especially startling when you consider the brief lifespan of the plastics food companies use for packaging: After food is eaten, their packages are tossed in the garbage can, which is not exactly efficient use of plastic. The toy sector has the highest intensity, at 3.9 percent of revenue, meaning that a higher proportion of their revenue is at risk.
Plastic use poses risks not only to the environment, but also to manufacturers and companies who use the material. The report cites several, including:
- The impact of tougher environmental legislation such as bans on disposable plastic bags, carbon pricing schemes and chemicals regulation
- Damage done to a brand