Plastic Planet - An Economic and Human Crisis | tutor2u Economics
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Plastic Planet - An Economic and Human Crisis

This blog brings together articles, videos and other resources on perhaps one of the most pressing environmental crisis of modern times, namely the staggering growth of plastic pollution and the likely economic, environmental and humanitarian consequences.

Plastic Planet - An Economic and Human Crisis

Scale of the Plastic Waste Crisis

  • 95% of plastic packaging material – worth $80-120bn each year – is lost to the economy after a single use
  • One refuse truck’s-worth of plastic is dumped into the sea every minute
  • Without change, there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish by 2050
  • The amount of plastic produced in a year is roughly the same as the entire weight of humanity
  • A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute
  • British consumers use 13bn plastic bottles a year, but only 7.5bn are recycled
  • The average person in the UK will use 150 plastic water bottles every year, in London it is 175 bottles per year 
  • The UK recycles 57% of the 13 billion plastic bottles used each year but recycling rates have flatlined in recent years

Suggestions for background reading

UN commits to stop ocean plastic waste (BBC news)

UK 'faces build-up of plastic waste' (BBC news)

Earth is becoming plastic planet (BBC news)

Chinese ban on plastic waste imports could see UK pollution rise (Guardian)

Plastics industry under pressure on pollution (The Herald)

Surfers against Sewage - Message in a Bottle Campaign

Microplastic Pollution: Everyone’s problem - but what can be done about it? (Environmental Technology)

Make supermarkets and drinks firms pay for plastic recycling, say MPs (Guardian)

Plastic bottles: Turning Back the Plastic Tide (House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Report, 2017)

Some behavioural economics reading

Nudge for good: How insights from behavioral economics can improve the world— and manipulate people (World Bank)

Using Nudges to Reduce Waste? The Case of Toronto's Plastic Bag Levy

Nudge to action: Behavioural science for sustainability

The rising tide of plastic waste in the ocean has been described by UN Oceans Chief Lisa Svensson as a ‘planetary crisis’, with 8 – 12 million tonnes of plastic being thrown in our oceans each year.

The World's Oceans Are Infested With Plastic

Negative externalities from plastic waste

Defending the use of plastic - arguments of plastic producers

  • Use of plastic reduces the amount of food waste
  • Plastic containers are more hygienic - reducing health risks from consuming products
  • The industry is investing heavily to produce lighter plastics with an increasing component that can be recycled
  • If there was no plastics packaging available and other materials were used, the overall packaging consumption of packaging mass, energy and  greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would increase. 

Background reading

5 barriers to sustainable consumption

Acknowledged source:
The Countries Polluting The Oceans The Most

Plastic pollution in the news

Causes of growth of plastic production

  • Shale gas has reduced the price of gas used in manufacturing plastic
  • Rising market demand for disposable drinks and ready meals
  • Consumption of bottled water in the UK has doubled in 15 years
  • Increased use and production of plastic in developing and emerging countries as per capita incomes rise
Seattle battles plastic straws to save the oceans

Intervention Options to move towards sustainable consumption


  • Plastic bag tax on consumers has led to a steep reduction in the number of bags given out in supermarkets / shops
  • Tax on producers of plastic bottles and non-recyclable meal trays - giving the industry an incentive to innovate and find alternatives
  • Tax could be on a sliding-scale - with a tax on plastic packaging with the hardest to recycle being charged the most 

Incentives for consumers:

  • Plastic bottle deposit return scheme - Deposit Return Schemes are currently in operation in around 40 countries worldwide as well as 21 US States - Reading

Regulations and Laws:

  • Law that plastic bottles have to contain a minimum of 50% recycled plastic
  • Regulate that all premises that serve food and drink must offer free drinking water
  • Regulate that water utilities must provide and maintain water fountains in major public places
How often do you buy plastic bottles when buying beverages?

Behavioural nudges and changing decisions

  • Requires changing default behaviour, habitual decisions
  • Needs changes in choice architecture e.g. taking away platic cups and straws as options
  • Changes in social norms can have a powerful impact e.g. reaction to Blue Planet 2 and Sky's Ocean Rescue Campaign
  • Social action can change behaviour e.g. community schemes to provide clean drinking water
  • Consumer behaviour is affected by the intention-inaction gap - i.e. barriers to people choosing more sustainable options.

Nudging businesses to change their behaviour

  • Innovation required to reduce the amount of plastic used - product design, materials used
  • Appealing to corporate social responsibility -  businesses need to recognise their contribution to global marine plastic pollution

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