- According to a new Plymouth Marine Laboratory-led study, marine plastic pollution costs the global economy hundreds — if not thousands — of billions of dollars each year in damaged or lost resources.
- The study, which was published last week in Marine Pollution Bulletin, estimates a 1-5% reduction in marine ecosystem services delivery as a result of plastic waste. The resulting costs add up to an annual loss of $500-$2,500 billion — or up to $33,000 per metric ton of marine plastic.
- "This study, for the first time shows that, while we should be concerned about ecological impacts, we should equally be worried about the economic and societal consequences which relate directly to our own health and wellbeing," said Dr. Nicola Beaumont, lead author and environmental economist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, in a statement.
While the ecological consequences of marine plastics have received increased recognition in recent years, the study is the first of its kind to attempt a holistic measurement of economic repercussions. Researchers analyzed the effects of marine plastics on three critical, high-risk ecosystem services:
Provision of fisheries, aquaculture and materials for agricultural use: In addition to reducing the productivity of commercial fisheries and aquaculture through physical entanglement and damage, marine plastics directly threaten fish and shellfish populations via ingestion and food chain contamination — posing an additional health risk to human consumers.
Heritage: Culturally valued, "charismatic" marine organisms — such as seabirds, turtles and cetaceans — are negatively affected by marine plastics through entanglement and ingestion. According to the study, such incidents can have "strong and detrimental" effects on human wellbeing, suggesting that "the relationship between ecosystem impact and human wellbeing loss is not necessarily linear."
Experiential recreation: Beach litter and other evidence of marine plastic pollution have been highlighted as a key rationale for reduced recreational time spent in these environments, leading to a range of economic (e.g., clean-up expenses and loss of tourism revenue), physical and mental health costs.
"Drawing on previous experiences of global pollutants ... we propose that the calculation of the economic costs per tonne of marine plastic is fundamental in future global negotiations to change the way plastics are designed, produced, used, reused and reprocessed," the study concludes, recommending that a plastic equivalent of "Social Cost of Carbon" be introduced to help understand and mitigate risks.
"Our calculations are a first stab at 'putting a price on plastic' ... we are convinced that already they are an underestimate of the real costs to global human society," Beaumont said in a statement. "Knowing this price can help us make informed decisions: recycling a tonne of plastic costs us hundreds against the costs of thousands if we let it into the marine environment."
The study is the latest in a series of recent reports highlighting the ramifications of plastic waste proliferation — findings that continue to raise the question of how big name brands and resin manufacturers are, or are not, responding. With the private sector increasingly focused on touting potential solutions, research around global economic costs may help contextualize the degree of investment and buy-in required to address the growing crisis.