The consumption of plastic generates annual environmental costs of 75 billion dollars as a result of marine and air pollution from the incineration of this material, according to the report ‘Valuing plastic’, contained in the yearbook. Although most of the financial costs of using plastic are derived from the damage caused by the greenhouse gases that are emitted when processing the raw materials with which they are made (about 30 percent), the damages caused by the plastic in marine ecosystems are being “underestimated,” warns the UNEP.

Discharges of this material increase the mortality of animals such as turtles, dolphins or whales; damage corals and are an important source of chemical contamination, reaching to humans after being ingested by fish or affecting beaches. Microplastics (particles 5 millimeters in diameter) are the main agent of contamination by this route, when ingested by fish, birds, crustaceans and even plankton.

Those incorporated into consumer products such as toothpaste do not disappear in the process of sewage treatment and end up in the sea, rivers and lakes. However, consumption patterns and the growing world population will only increase the consumption of plastics, so the UN report appeals to companies, institutions and consumers to reduce their use and control their “plastic footprint”, a new term that you recommend to use to control the use of that material.

Not surprisingly, consumer products companies save 2,947 million euros each year by recycling plastic. “We can not live without plastic, but we can prevent plastic from dominating our landscapes,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP’s chief executive at a press conference. Jacqueline McGlade, the UNEP chief scientist, acknowledged that plastics are “a long-standing problem” that can not be ignored today, nor because of their relatively unknown effects on marine ecosystems. The Yearbook also warns of excess nitrogen in the environment (annually, 190 million tonnes are generated, 78 million more than those emanating from natural processes) with effects on air, water, soil quality and ecosystems. The UN also warns that aquaculture, which currently supplies half of all fish for human consumption, has drawbacks such as increased disease or extinction of some species as a result of rapid growth (30 percent last decade).

Regarding air pollution, the UNEP recalled that it generates annual costs of 3.5 trillion dollars (a little more than 2.5 trillion euros) for the deaths and diseases that it causes in the most advanced economies, including China and India. The emergence of infectious diseases is also linked to alterations in the environment, the document adds.