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EDITORIAL: Plastic Crisis

PLASTIC is ubiquitous. As one of the cheapest and most accessible materials available, it has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. From packaging to disposable goods, the convenience and low cost of plastic have led to a global addiction.

Astonishingly, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, and up to five trillion plastic bags are used annually. In the past 30 years, plastic consumption has quadrupled, with projections indicating that global production could reach a staggering 1.1 billion tons by 2050.

However, this apparent affordability is a dangerous illusion. Most plastic products are designed for single use, discarded within minutes yet persisting in the environment for centuries. Plastic bottles and disposable diapers, for instance, have a lifespan of 450 to 500 years.

With less than 10 percent of plastic waste being recycled, the planet is suffocating under a deluge of plastic pollution that clogs landfills and contaminates oceans and rivers.

Hidden cost of plastic

Economists refer to the hidden costs associated with the production and consumption of goods as “negative externalities.”

These are the unaccounted-for consequences that affect the environment and human health. Plastics are a prime example of this concept, imposing significant hidden costs that are not reflected in their market price.

The impact of plastic on wildlife is catastrophic. Millions of animals die each year due to plastic waste.

Marine species, mammals, and birds are strangled by discarded plastic or ingest it, mistaking it for food. This ingestion leads to severe health issues, including cell damage, digestive disruption, and reproductive harm, ultimately threatening animal populations.

Plastic does not fully decompose. Instead, it breaks down into microplastics (MPs) and nanoplastics (NPs), which can persist for thousands of years.

These tiny particles are ingested by living organisms, entering the food chain and ultimately being consumed by humans.

Studies estimate that humans ingest microplastics equivalent to the size of a credit card each week.

These particles accumulate in vital organs and have been found in the lungs, liver, kidneys, and even the placentas of newborns.

Plastic’s true price

The environmental and health impacts of plastic highlight the urgent need to reassess its true cost. The market price of plastic fails to account for its long-term detrimental effects.

Implementing a “Pigovian tax,” which equates to the value of these negative externalities, could discourage plastic consumption. While this may seem drastic, it is a necessary step to reflect the true cost of plastic on our environment and health.

Understanding the real price of plastic could revolutionize how we conduct business. Take the sachet industry in the Philippines, for example, where around 150 million sachets are discarded daily.

When factoring in environmental costs, the true price of these sachets becomes alarmingly high. Similarly, single-use water bottles, when priced with their health and environmental impacts, could become so expensive that alternative solutions for portable drinking water would become more viable.

Investing in research and development for alternatives to plastic is not only reasonable but essential. Innovations such as straws made from edible seaweed, packaging from mushroom materials, and food wrappers from biodegradable milk protein are promising.

However, these alternatives struggle to compete with the low cost of plastic. Only when the market reflects the true cost of plastic will these innovations gain the necessary traction.

Call to action

It is clear that plastic is not the cheap and convenient solution it appears to be. Its hidden costs to the environment, wildlife, and human health make it a costly burden. As a society, we must acknowledge these costs and take decisive action.

Implementing economic measures like a Pigovian tax, investing in sustainable alternatives, and rethinking our consumption habits are crucial steps towards mitigating the plastic crisis.

We must recognize that our long-held perception of plastic as an optimal option is flawed. By addressing the true price of plastic, we can make more informed choices that benefit both people and the planet.

The time for change is now. The future of our environment, health, and generations to come depends on it.


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