Consumer goods companies are costing the environment $75 billion per year through their use of plastics, revealed a report released last week.
"Valuing plastic", the report from the Plastic Disclosure Project, the U.N. Environment Programme and natural capital analysts Trucost, evaluates the environmental and social impact of plastics used by businesses. It assesses the financial cost to companies were they to be financially responsible for their plastics usage.
The food sector accounted for 23 percent of this financial cost, which the report calls the natural capital cost, with the soft drinks industry following a distant second at 12 percent.
Natural capital costs incurred by plastics came from a variety of sectors. Over 30 percent of the costs stemmed directly from greenhouse gas emissions produced upstream through the extraction of raw materials and manufacturing of plastic feedstock.
"For a business person, the mix of types of impacts is just mind-boggling. Some impacts are toxic, some foul usable land, some physically kill animals, etc," Andrew Russell, the director of the Plastic Disclosure Project told BusinessGreen.
"Avoiding plastic entering the environment at all will avoid a lot of them," he continued. "Making sure there is a very high percentage of recycled content in the product or packaging, and making sure the plastic is recycled at the end of its life, all have enormous favourable impact."
At the other end of the supply chain, marine pollution incurred a natural capital cost of at least $13 billion, the report says. Non-durable household goods, and clothing and accessories were the two consumer goods sectors incurring the highest natural capital cost to the ocean from their use of plastics.
The ocean faces many pollution threats from plastics. Russell highlighted microbeads, which he said wash straight down the sink into the ocean.
But the science behind which ocean plastics are most hazardous to sealife is still immature, he warned.
"We applaud further research, but all of this serves to remind us that plastics do not belong in the ocean, and we should act now to keep them out of any environment," he said.
This news comes soon after President Obama acknowledged ocean health as a critical issue, pledging to expand a key marine conservation territory, creating the world's largest protected ocean area.
Levels of disclosure on the use of plastics by businesses are extremely poor, the report said. Of the 100 companies assessed, only half of them reported at least one item of quantitative data on plastics usage.
"Some sectors take disclosure here quite seriously (e.g. durable and non-durable household goods, consumer electronics, personal products, food, retail, clothing and accessories)," said Russell. "But we do not see that same degree of disclosure in say footwear and toys, which have a high plastic intensity."
Footwear and toys have a higher level of natural capital costs from plastic usage per $1 million of revenue, meaning that more of their business is tied up in plastics usage. The report suggests they should be more transparent about how they are managing the issue.
Businesses should take action to get better data on their plastics usage, Russell concluded, arguing that shareholders, customers, employees, suppliers, regulators, legislators and activists would support them.
"Ignoring this issue entirely runs the risk that any one of these stakeholders may surprise them in an unpleasant way," he said.
The report came as the first seesion of the U.N. Environment Assembly opened in Nairobi. The highest-level U.N. body ever convened on the environment is bringing together 1,300 level government representatives and leaders from business, industry and civil society and include sessions on financing the Green Economy; and the Sustainable Development Goals and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, including sustainable consumption and production.