One of the major challenges in reducing plastic waste is the lack of accountability for the costs of single-use plastic as the true cost of single-use plastic is not reflected in the product's price; in the case of single-use plastic, the cost of pollution and environmental degradation is an externality, as it is not included in the price of the product. Therefore, manufacturers do not bear the true cost of producing single-use plastic, and subsequently, consumers do not bear the cost of disposing of it. When heavily practiced, this contributes to overconsumption and waste as single-use plastic is cheap and easy to produce, and will continue to be prevalent due to the lack of incentives for consumers and producers to switch to more sustainable alternatives. According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the external cost of plastic pollution is estimated to be $40 billion per year. This cost includes the impact on marine ecosystems, human health, and tourism. However, this cost is not borne by the producers or consumers of single-use plastic, but by society as a whole.
The lack of accountability for the costs of single-use plastic creates a situation where the incessant production and consumption of single-use plastic is economically efficient for producers, but consequential for society as a whole. As a result, there is a need for policy interventions that internalize the costs of pollution and environmental degradation associated with single-use plastic.
One policy intervention that has been proposed is a tax or fee on single-use plastic items, internalizing the cost of disposal and incentivizing consumers to switch to more sustainable alternatives. Proving efficient in other nations, a tax on plastic bags in Ireland led to a 90% reduction in plastic bag use according to a report by the World Bank. Similarly, a tax on single-use plastic in the UK is expected to reduce plastic waste by 1.6 billion pounds per year.
Another policy intervention is extended producer responsibility (EPR), which requires producers to bear the cost of managing their products at end-of-life. This would incentivize producers to design products with end-of-life considerations in mind, ensuring that plastic waste is collected and recycled into new products. In countries where EPR has been implemented, such as Japan and Germany, there has been a significant increase in recycling rates and a decrease in waste generation.