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Social Cost of Plastic: 2019's More Than GDP of India, Report Says

Sri Lankans walk past a pile of plastic pellets washed ashore from the fire damaged container ship MV X-Press Pearl at Kapungoda, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka, June 11, 2021.

The pollution, emissions and cleanup costs of plastic produced in 2019 alone could be $3.7 trillion, according to a report released Monday by wildlife charity WWF, warning of the environmental and economic burden of this "seemingly cheap" material.

There is increasing international alarm over the sheer volumes of fossil-fuel based plastics entering the environment, as microplastics have infiltrated even the most remote and otherwise pristine regions of the planet.

In its report, WWF said societies were "unknowingly subsiding" plastic. The report estimates the lifetime costs of the 2019 production is equal to more than the gross domestic product of India.

"Plastic appears to be a relatively cheap material when looking at the market price primary plastic producers pay for virgin plastic. However, this price fails to account for the full cost imposed across the plastic life cycle," said the report, “Plastics: The Cost to Society, Environment and the Economy,” produced for WWF by the consultancy Dalberg.

Plastic is everywhere

It estimated that unless there was concerted international action, a projected doubling of plastic production could see costs rocket by 2040 to $7.1 trillion.

The analysis looked at factors including the greenhouse gas emissions in the production process, health impacts, waste management and estimates of the reduction in the economic services of ecosystems on land and in water.

Since the 1950s, roughly 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced with around 60% of that tossed into landfills or the natural environment.

Tiny fragments have been discovered inside fish in the deepest recesses of the ocean and peppering Arctic sea ice.

The debris is estimated to cause the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals each year.

"Tragically, the plastic pollution crisis is showing no signs of slowing down, but the commitment to tackle it has reached an unprecedented level," said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, in a statement.

'More plastic than fish'

The report comes as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) meets in the French port city of Marseille, with one motion under consideration calling for an end to plastic pollution by 2030.

Earlier in September the European Union threw its weight behind calls for a legally binding international agreement to reduce plastic pollution, during U.N.-hosted talks in Geneva.

The U.N. Environment Program has said the planet is "drowning in plastic pollution," with about 300 million metric tons of plastic waste produced every year.

The proposed resolution is to be discussed during the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi next year.

France's minister in charge of biodiversity, Berangere Abba, said if the world failed to act there would be "more plastic in the oceans than fish" by 2050.