Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) with a plastic bag, Moore Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Australia © Troy Mayne / WWF

Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) with a plastic bag, Moore Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Australia © Troy Mayne / WWF

The true cost of plastics

07 Sep 2021

  • carbon pollution
  • greenhouse gas emission
  • marine pollution
  • plastic

By Kate Noble, WWF-Australia’s No Plastics in Nature Policy Manager

Plastic is one of the cheapest materials around. So cheap, companies literally give it away as gimmicks and promotions.


But the tiny price tag on plastic products ignores a whole lot of costs that are largely invisible, and for which governments, people and the planet are ultimately footing the bill.


In a groundbreaking piece of research, WWF and global consultancy firm Dalberg have worked together to estimate the true cost of plastics to society and the environment, and the results are staggering.


Building on existing models and data, Dalberg calculates that the lifetime cost of plastic produced globally in just one year (2019) is around AU$5 trillion.


Of this, the cost met by Australia is around AU$17 billion, including damage caused to the economy and threats to Australia’s wildlife.


Green turtle hatchling climbing over plastic bottle strewn on the beach,  Juani Island, Tanzania © Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK


These costs include not just the market price of virgin plastic production, but also the cost of greenhouse gas emissions, waste management costs and damage to marine ecosystems.


To put this into context, the lifetime global cost of plastic for just one year is more than the GDP of India.


What’s even more alarming is how quickly plastic production is increasing, driven by virgin plastics that are derived from fossil fuels.


Our research estimates that without urgent action, plastic production is likely to double by 2040, and plastic pollution could triple by 2040.


That would put the lifetime cost of virgin plastic produced in 2040 at around AU$10 trillion, more than the GDP of Germany, Canada, and Australia in 2019 combined.


Microplastics found on Milman Island © WWF-Aus / Veronica Joseph

The good news is, using existing policies and technologies, we can curb the tide of plastic production and pollution and make a serious dent in this dire problem.


While many countries around the world – including Australia – are making progress in reducing plastic use and increasing recycling, we also need to be committed about a global framework to tackle this global problem.


WWF has been pushing for a legally binding global plastics treaty for many years, and we’re about to reach a critical point in that process.


In February 2022, UN member states will vote on a resolution that would start work on the treaty next year. With the true cost of plastic pollution mounting daily, and a historical opportunity to start work on a plastic pollution treaty in less than six months, there’s no time to waste.



Please, add your voice to the call for a treaty.


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