Every year plastic waste costs marine ecosystems $13 billion in damages, says a report released recently by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The estimated 10-20 million tonnes of plastic waste that finds its way into oceans, smothers coral reefs, routinely entangles marine wildlife, and more insidiously, degrades into ‘microplastics’ that transfer toxins into the food chain.

Microplastics (or plastic particles of 5mm diameter or less) are ingested by creatures ranging from sea birds to mussels, said marine biologist and UNEP chief scientist Jacqueline McGlade at a press conference at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi.

Microplastics form “plastispheres” that harbour thriving communities of dangerous microbes and also absorb and transfer heavy metals such as mercury across vast distances through the ocean.

The report titled ‘Valuing Plastic’ presents a “business case” for plastic-intensive companies, and recommends that companies monitor plastic use, disclose their results and increase resource efficiency and recycling.

Plastic toys, athletic goods, and household durable goods sectors use the largest amount of plastic in their products while food companies, soft drinks and the pharmaceutical industry are the biggest users of plastic in their packaging.

A growing source of microplastics is the cosmetic and personal care industry that has introduced plastic particles of 5mm diameter or less in products such as toothpastes and showergels, says the report.

Asia faces the highest environmental costs from plastic pollution because of the higher pollution intensity levels of manufacturing and a lack of adequate waste management facilities.

“Companies must consider their plastic footprint just as they do their carbon footprint,” said Andrew Russell, director of Plastic Disclosure Project that was part of the research.

However, consumer goods companies have a poor track record of disclosing their plastic use, the report finds. Of 100 companies assessed, less than half reported any data relevant to plastic.

(The Correspondent participated in the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi at the invitation of UNEP.)