Plastics dramatically improve the lives of world citizens and contribute to global economic expansion while also posing serious environmental threats through marine pollution. According to the United Nations Environment Assembly, an estimated eight million tons of plastic waste enters the ocean each year. This research paper analyzes marine plastic pollution through an economic lens by looking at the cost-benefits of plastic use, production, consumption patterns, and waste-management of plastic on a global scale. Key questions that will be investigated are: what economic and humanitarian factors have skyrocketed plastic production and consumption in the last decades? Why has plastic pollution outnumbered other types of marine pollution in such a short amount of time? How can waste-management systems be improved to bring down costs and reduce the environmental impact of harmful plastic materials such as single-use plastic? To answer these questions, the research will rely on the use of primary sources from the United Nations, international reports, and research databases. This analysis reveals how uncovering the answers to these questions may hopefully move humanity towards a more prosperous, safe, and environmentally sustainable future.
An Economic Analysis of Marine Plastic Litter: Unpacking the Plastics Industry
Plastic products, being notably versatile and boasting a wide range of applications, have amazed the world with their revolutionary benefits. Although plastics are a significant part of a growing economic sector, we have witnessed devastating environmental effects as a result of their widespread use. Compiling and analyzing the current literature surrounding plastics will be necessary to critically analyze the economic impacts of plastic pollution. According to the United Nations Environment Assembly, an estimated eight million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. This pressing global concern is discussed everywhere from elementary school classrooms to national governments and United Nations assemblies. Marine plastic pollution has become an unfortunate reality that stems from increasingly normalized patterns of plastic consumption and production. Although plastic waste has been recognized as a serious pollutant to the oceans, global markets continue to grow because of the legitimate benefits associated with this unique product.
This research seeks to identify the underlying challenges faced in reducing global plastics pollution and provide substantive answers to best tackle the growing challenges posed by plastics production, consumption patterns, use and disposal through a cost-benefit analysis of plastic use today, and assessment of the feasibility and practicality found in current waste-management solutions. Key questions addressed within the research include: what economic and humanitarian factors have skyrocketed plastic production and consumption in the last decades? Why has plastic pollution outnumbered other types of marine pollution in such a short amount of time? How can waste-management systems be improved to bring down costs and reduce the environmental impact of harmful plastic materials like single-use plastic? This analysis reveals how uncovering the answers to these questions may hopefully move humanity towards a more prosperous, safe, and environmentally sustainable future.
Literature Review of the Plastics Industry and Plastic Waste
The academic literature pertaining to plastics provides a number of common themes. However, the two dominant themes of benefits and consequences from the plastics industry often speak in opposition to one another or fail to take the other perspective into account. Only by considering both sides of the plastics debate can one devise legitimate environmental and economic solutions. Major producers and economic investors in the plastics industry focus largely on the benefits plastics have in the short-run, while environmental groups avoid discussing benefits and highlight the detrimental impact plastics have in the long-run. The most relevant articles and journals attempt to review both sides of the issue. This research will review both sides as well, but will direct more critical analysis to the economics of the debate, which is better suited for the nature of this paper.
Due to the extensive benefits plastics provide, the economic stance will highlight their usefulness and prominence. Anthony Andrady and Mike Neal examine the benefits of plastics in their publication “Application and Societal Benefits of Plastics,” by analyzing the current effectiveness of plastic as a product and looking at future research initiatives. Plastics have been a catalyst for food packaging, reduced transportation costs and energy saving initiatives (3). Currently, plastics are being used to aid the development of renewable energy resources, including the fundamental materials of hydrogen and carbon, to create new materials like carbon nanotubes. In fact, carbon nanotubes and upcycled electricity wires using plastic compounds counters the overheating issues caused by long-range metal cables (Poischbeg). This would mean renewable energy power stations using wind or solar energy would be able to reach greater distances without worry of overheating. Plastic technologies and advances continue to improve lives and further exploration is a key interest in the research community.
Disposable plastics are a prominent economic option in today’s society. For instance, not only have plastic utensils been used in restaurants and at home to cut labor costs and energy required to clean traditional silverware, but they have also cut down on the spread of diseases in the food industry, an economic and humanitarian interest (“The Purpose”). Furthermore, the study elaborates the value of resource efficiency, for instance, lightweight packaging can lower the weight of transport, reduce carbon emissions, lower required energy, and improve many safety measures, namely in airbags and hazard suits (Plastics Europe 6). Although Plastics Europe as an organization releases annual reports with general facts and figures of the previous year, they occasionally release in-depth analytical reports that are based around the data they compile annually, which is being referenced here. Plastic packaging is also proven to extend the shelf life of food and beverages. Through sealants and insulation, plastic products make homes significantly more energy efficient (Consumer Benefits). Plastics have improved human life in almost every way imaginable, shaping the way of the modern world through their innovation.
Academic discussion indicates that global economies and employment rates thrive in the plastics industry, showing no signs of slowing down. Plastics have certainly improved humanity and societal needs, but there are also clear economic advantages to plastic production. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. plastics industry employs more than 700,000 people and the industry is expected to experience higher employment rates. About 186 billion USD has been invested in the plastics industry since 2010, making production increase rapidly in the past decade. Due to the strong societal and economic impact of plastics in today’s global economy, any move to decrease plastic use will face serious challenges and possible job loss.
Despite the advantages associated with the use of plastics, a significant body of literature has focused on plastics costs, emphasizing several key areas to categorize cost. Economic loss to government entities include estimates that the 21 countries in the Asia-Pacific rim are experiencing 1.26 billion USD in damages to control the marine pollution problem (McIlgorm et. al.) This type of cost is substantial because it directly affects the economies of many nations over a large geographical region. Economic costs are further separated into subcategories, which include expenditures and loss of output (Bergmann 14.2). Both of these subcategories deal with the unavoidable environmental impact that will later reflect through economic costs. This concept occurs anytime plastic debris has a negative impact on the environment and financial resources are then necessary to address the issue. The first subcategory of expenditures includes beach cleanup, damage to fishing gear, and plastics-related health issues. The second subcategory, loss of output, relates to a disruption in major industries, such as agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries, commercial shipping, recreational boating, coastal tourism, etc. Consequential environmental impacts caused by plastic pollution become significant when compared with the benefits mentioned by earlier studies. One of the strongest themes that results from the overview of the literature, in terms of the cost-benefits of plastic use, is the act of choosing the short-term benefits regardless of the long-term costs. Negative long-term impacts outweigh the short-term benefits because the benefits simply delay economic costs, they do not erase them. Eventually, governments and corporations are paying a convenience fee they may have never imagined for choosing unsustainable forms of plastic. As time passes, this will become more evident as environmental effects become irreversible, and greater economic costs become inevitable.
Plastic production, in the past several decades, has also naturally narrowed down to a certain type of plastic, thanks to technological advances. Plastic production has revealed a most notable shift seen in recent years in the change from durable, long-term plastic products to single-use plastics (Geyer et. al.). Research for new applications of plastic polymers reveals preferred lightweight options, as seen in single-use plastics. Single-use plastics are easily the most preferred method of packaging due to their low cost and easy disposal. Roland Geyer’s research of single-use plastics is complemented by the use of plastic packaging as explored by the Plastics Europe report. The analytical report covers information beyond statistics by investigating the chemical composition, benefits to plastic use, research initiatives, sustainability, and trends in recycling and energy recovery. The complexity of plastic is evident and the source adequately addresses all sides of the topic. Further, the United Nations Environment Programme released Single-Use Plastics: a Roadmap for Sustainability, a report specifically discussing single-use plastics and methods to improve sustainability. This report indicates that the global shift to single-use plastics has become a significant part of our world. Single-use materials are largely produced by non-renewable resources, including fossil hydrocarbons, which points to their unsustainability in the status quo. Although the varying sources are independent of each other, they collectively explain the significance of the shift in plastic production. The experts all observe the production growth of single-use plastics, causing demand for them in the packaging sector due to overall efficiency and convenience. Current production patterns of plastic are showcased in reports and statistical figures, which explain why single-use plastics are so well established in the modern world’s economy. They are cheaper to produce and more convenient for communities to consume, thereby functioning as a miracle product.
Plastics have completely changed the global market and have high production rates due to their efficiency. Over the last 50 years, plastics have become a staple commodity that has reached all countries, whether developed or undeveloped. Beginning with a focus on production patterns, the World Bank’s most recent data from 2018 demonstrates that the United States is the top exporter of plastics in the world, annually exporting around 100 million USD worth of plastic. China is a close second, as they export 89 million USD worth of the material. China is the top global producer of plastic, with an annual figure of around 60 million tonnes (Ritchie and Roser). Although they produce the most plastic, China does not export as much as the United States because its population consumes a large portion of their production domestically. These two key economies are making the greatest impact in plastic production, with European powerhouses, Germany and France, following closely behind. An important commonality between the key world producers of plastic is that they all have well-established economies and are more likely to be developed countries.
Plastic consumption directly relates to the patterns of waste because countries that consume plastic unsustainably have been noted to generate the most waste. For instance, the largest sector of the plastics industry is packaging, which conveniently offers the greatest potential for identification and solutions (“Single-Use” 2). China is currently the largest contributor to global plastic waste and Asia contributes about 23 percent of plastic waste related to single-use packaging materials. Interestingly enough, the US is the largest contributor to plastic waste on a per capita basis. This indicates that American citizens are consuming plastic and creating waste at a higher rate than the average Chinese citizen. Plastic consumption is managed differently around the world, with developed countries, like the US, having higher individual responsibility compared to developing countries, like China. Underdeveloped nations in the Eastern Hemisphere, and specifically the Asian region, largely contribute to plastic waste on the whole, but their average citizens do not contribute as much as average U.S. citizens. Underdeveloped populations, having the greatest need to consume convenient plastic technologies through their governments and private sector, encounter greater overall percentages of plastic waste. This signifies that the culture in developed nations reflect greater individual responsibility and dependency on plastics, even though these populations are more financially stable. On the contrary, underdeveloped nations have higher numbers for total waste produced, but less individual dependency, even though their populations could stand to benefit from cheap, quick solutions in their daily lives.
Consumption patterns in the plastics industry speak to the widespread use plastics have in the lives of global citizens. Nearly half of all the plastic waste generated globally in 2015 was categorized as single-use according to Single-Use Plastics: a Roadmap for Sustainability. While plastics have drastically improved valued industries, including industrial machinery, technology, transportation, etc., these applications generally do not involve single-use plastics, but rather durable forms of plastic that are long-lasting. Despite this, the unsustainable single-use material continues to be the highest type of waste produced. Single-use waste disproportionately exceeds other forms of plastic waste, such as those from the powerful industries mentioned, on a per capita basis. The majority of disposable plastic waste found includes carry bags, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, and related items (Sharma). This validates that plastic is being used for convenience rather than the revolutionary applications we frequently associate it with. Therefore, problem-solving efforts should be dedicated to single-use plastics in particular and related materials that result in the highest rates of waste. Single-use plastic material is the least recycled, yet it has the greatest need for sustainable disposal methods.
Although plastics have directly benefited society, ineffective waste-management results in environmental costs that lead to significant economic costs. Most plastics are produced and exported from strong economies and developed nations; however, underdeveloped countries are often left to deal with plastic waste. Low-to-middle-income countries, such as those in Sub-Saharan African and South Asia, will find that 80-90 percent of their plastic waste is inadequately disposed of (Ritchie and Roser). More developed regions, in particular, the U.S. and Europe, have established waste-management infrastructure including secured, closed landfills. Mismanaged plastic waste from underdeveloped nations is most likely to end up in rivers or wastewater which then filter into oceans (Plastics Europe 12). This globally significant issue stems from the growing plastic economy. Plastics have end-of-life patterns that are generally more highlighted than production and consumption patterns when assessing economic effects. This is demonstrated through awareness initiatives and the heavy marketing of individual efforts to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” The reality of the matter is that less than nine percent of all plastics ever produced have been recycled, and single-use plastics are currently not practical items to be recycled due to their chemical composition and initial end-of-life purpose. Recycling may be a popular buzzword that attempts to motivate environmentally friendly initiatives, but Jefferson Hopewell et. al. investigate the economic feasibility of recycling plastic products, specifically the ones seen in the current market. Plastic packaging, being one of the most widespread applications of single-use plastics according to Plastics Europe’s analytical report, are a result of a combination of polymers that create the thin material that is heavily used in the market. Hopewell’s research indicates that recycling is more economically attainable when the materials intended to be recycled are made from a single polymer rather than many, which is simply not the case in many of the plastics that are commonly used, a large percentage of which consist of single-use plastics. Recycling for disposable plastics is “although technically possible – often financially unviable” (“Single-Use” 15). They use styrofoam as an example of a material that cannot be recycled locally but must be shipped to a centralized plant. To ship and coordinate such a vast amount of unique materials in categories of single-use plastics is an overwhelming task. This indicates that although recycling is arbitrarily referenced as a waste-management solution, it is certainly not the most economically or logistically achievable.
Waste-management systems have not been able to keep up with the rate of plastic production, therefore resulting in further environmental damage and misuse of resources (Plastics Europe 11). Improved waste-management techniques can have tremendous value on the Asia-Pacific region, an area that experiences vast mismanagement of plastic waste (McIlgorm et. al.). Once plastic has reached maximum usage, which in many cases is one use, it is often discarded through ocean leakage with a quarter of collected waste leaking into the oceans due to ineffective waste-management (Plastics Europe 7). This signifies the added difficulty current waste-management systems have to control plastic waste. As production and consumption of plastic rises, specifically in urban cities, more plastic waste continues to end up in the oceans (Hoornweg and Perinaz). Coastal regions, such as those found in many Asian countries, have a higher chance of polluting the oceans due to their close proximity to shores, and lack of adequate infrastructure. Production and consumption patterns connect to waste-management techniques because of the grave disparity between their evolution in the past few decades. The world is favoring the newest applications of plastic without allocating the appropriate time and resources to develop necessary waste-management infrastructure to equate with the expanding plastics industry.
Analysis of Waste-Management Solutions Through Their Feasibility and Practicality
Although plastic has revolutionized the modern world, our disposal of this miracle product has been less than optimal. Successfully addressing marine plastic pollution is not a question of right and wrong; on the contrary, the general consensus is that polluting our earth’s oceans has resulted in increasingly catastrophic environmental issues, impacting everything from global climate change to food chains that are relied on to feed much of the world’s population. The problem lies in the feasibility of implementing effective waste-management infrastructure and the current patterns of plastic consumption. If initiatives to improve the situation are not feasible, it cannot make economic sense regardless of how practical it may be.
Plastic production has established itself as a powerful industry where sustainability is not usually considered. Major producers constantly cut overhead costs and unnecessary spending to make plastics in the cheapest way possible, behavior which is otherwise reasonable and to be expected. The most practical way to control plastic waste should involve managing it at its source. If the plastics industry were held liable for disposal costs for their products while they create them, this would be a sustainable practice that considers the full life of the plastic product. This liability can be measured in future recycling costs, shipments of plastic waste to incineration plants, energy recovery, and more. Companies tend to operate as financially efficient as possible and would be hesitant to incur these costs because it does not benefit them to do so. Disposal costs on major industry players would be a practical way to aid plastic waste relief, but these independent corporations are not likely to implement them on their own. However, this sustainable practice may still be accomplished through legislation that requires disposal costs to be satisfied by major corporations. Major producers are found in the U.S., China, and Germany amongst other European nations. Democratic entities should be encouraged to pass this legislation as a moral obligation for the planet. Besides the ethical argument to internally absorb expenses, the hidden consequences that society incurs in the long run would achieve economic fairness if the producers covered disposal costs. Moreover, international regimes could impose cross-national standards to encourage these endeavors, similar to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. By doing so, political actors can agree on regulations through international agreements that prevent major producers from using their power for an unjust competitive advantage. Such policies would provide guidelines for participating members to adapt their laws and culture towards a more sustainable future. Although these costs might seem detrimental at first, they can greatly benefit the environment and economic equity in the long run.
Consumption and general use of plastic also has the capacity to become a more environmentally conscious practice. Single-use plastics should become a less standard product in the homes of families that can afford sustainable plastics. Developed countries are most likely to have a higher standard of living than underdeveloped ones, yet they produce just as much plastic waste as underdeveloped countries. Consumption of single-use plastics can possibly be curved by placing an additional tax on the most harmful products, similar to a carbon tax on fuel. The added tax could potentially be used to aid state or local efforts to improve waste-management for plastic. This would be a practical way of discouraging the use of single-use plastics in areas that can afford to go without them, particularly in developed nations that have higher individual responsibility for plastic waste. This option is feasible if implemented by state and local governments that have a better understanding of their populations. Additionally, public pressure on multinational corporations could influence them to be more environmentally conscious, and ultimately enhance their marketing image while supporting a cleaner environment. By considering these various options, mitigating plastic waste in the oceans can be done successfully if executed in an economically sensible manner.
The most popularly suggested waste-management technique, recycling, has been taught in schools and constantly referenced over time. Weighing both sides of the argument is crucial to understanding the practicality of this approach. Recycling has raised awareness about pollution in an impactful way, yet studies continue to reference how 9 percent of all plastics ever produced have been recycled. There are several reasons for this. First, plastic is so cheap to produce that the additional steps and processing recycled plastic has to undergo makes it difficult to compete in the market against newly developed plastic goods. Consumption patterns remain consistent in this sense, the cheaper product will outsell the more expensive one if they are relatively the same in quality and use. This obstacle remains a valid concern as the costs of recycling plastic are higher than producing plastic. Secondly, the more complicated the chemical composition of the plastic, the more cost and energy is required to break it apart and recycle it. This is especially true in the case of single-use plastics, which are not produced with recycling in mind. The nine percent statistic is reflective of the true application of plastics in the real world. Yes, recycling can be practical and can greatly help mitigate polluting the oceans, but due to higher costs and current global efforts, it has not proven to be the most probable or efficient waste-management method. This is not to say that recycling should be discarded as a solution to the greater problem. Recycling can function as one of many strategies that reduce the amount of plastics entering the ocean, with greater funding towards policies that reduce cost and maximize efficiency.
Before enacting the “Green Fence” initiative to restrict waste imports in 2013, China was the top importer of plastic waste. After this policy became permanent in 2017, global imports of waste were spread across middle-income and higher-income countries (Brooks et. al.). China could no longer maintain the burden of receiving other nation’s plastic waste which had negatively impacted their environment and human health. Regardless of status, governments that were used to sending their waste to China now found themselves ill-equipped to manage waste due to lack of necessary infrastructure and clear policy. This suggests that the global economy is unable to adequately address plastic waste and prevent leakage into oceans. Improving waste-management infrastructure, including plastic processing plants, incineration plants, and energy recovery systems, may be a key step to improving the issues at hand. Given that scientists continue to enhance and mold the applications of plastic, why not also do the same for the disposal of plastic? Plastic continues to be discarded, leaking into rivers that flow into oceans. It is possible to stop this at its source by increasing the efforts of plastic collection after use.
Addressing plastic pollution requires drastic policy change and dedicated funding to support the improvement of waste-management infrastructure. Government funding for such initiatives may be difficult to acquire considering each government retains autonomous control over decisions with national funding, but it is feasible if the right investments are made. The private sector does have the opportunity to influence change but not near the scale of governments. Private sectors and nonprofits currently do well by aiding small scale projects, such as beach cleanups, individual recycling campaigns, and awareness events. These are important, but they do not have the same effect as sustainable waste-management systems. International, non-government organizations, namely the United Nations, are at liberty to organize guidelines that require major producers to build disposal costs into the costs of their products. Such guidelines can be encouraged by member states domestically imposing taxes and tariffs on certain plastic goods. Establishing international regimens that encourage the strong actors of the plastics industry to act in an economically and environmentally conscious manner would also greatly benefit efforts to mitigate pollution. For instance, the United Nations consider their 17 Sustainable Development Goals when drafting multinational resolutions to address these issues. Goals related to marine plastic pollution are numbers 12, 13, and 14: Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action, and Life Below Water. International resolutions can make a difference with clear goals like these in mind. Creating better infrastructure for waste-management has the most potential to diminish marine plastic pollution, and can be feasible if the right policies are passed with appropriate funding.
Marine plastic pollution is a pressing environmental issue with economic elements that are often overlooked. Practical solutions cannot always be implemented because they are not economically possible or cost-effective. Plastic is an economically valuable product that will clearly continue to thrive as production and consumption patterns predict. Current disposal habits can be addressed by implementing policies that are both practical for the environment and economically sensible; this ensures that the global market is utilizing its scarce resources to the best of its ability.
Marine plastic pollution must be addressed practically by studying the cost-benefits of plastic use and analyzing production and consumption patterns. When governments and corporations become educated on these key topics and their importance, it will pave the way for powerful waste-management systems that can sufficiently control plastic waste. Plastic is a crucial component of the modern world and enhances humanity through prominent technological applications. Its future shows no signs of slowing down, indicating that efforts to mitigate waste should revolve around waste-management rather than prevention. Plastic products are used to society’s advantage by supporting developing countries and impoverished populations. The economic and humanitarian benefits of plastics promotes a significant positive impact.
Solving pollution issues related to plastic waste needs to take place through an intentional effort made by major producers and nations. These same actors have a responsibility to create change because they are the only ones capable of doing so on a large scale. Current waste-management strategies have not been able to keep up with the amount of plastic waste being produced. Practical policy changes supported by funding are crucial to make feasible improvements. By implementing more advanced waste-management infrastructure, a global change to positively impact the world’s oceans can be accomplished.
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