Marine plastic pollution costs between $3,300 and $33,000 per ton of benefits lost from marine ecosystems.
Research on the global impacts of plastics is coming thick and fast and a new paper in Marine Pollution Bulletin confirms the toll plastic waste takes on marine ecosystems. In some ways, things may well be even worse than we thought.
Marine plastic pollution, researchers say, costs people between $3,300 and $33,000 per ton of benefits lost from marine ecosystems. And this is still a rather conservative estimate, setting “the ‘lower bound’ of the full economic costs of marine plastic,” they stress.
Their calculations were based on the cumulative decline in the value of marine ecosystem services by 1-5% due to plastic pollution. Considering the global value of ecosystem services previously estimated at $49.7 trillion per year, the loss in marine ecosystem services amounts to a staggering $2.5 trillion. Dividing extremes of the range by 75-150 million tons of plastic in marine environment in 2011, we end up with the value per tone estimate provided above.
These estimates includes fisheries, aquaculture, recreation and other ecosystem services affected by plastic pollution, leading to a decline in real benefits people derive from the oceans.
Researchers also emphasized the impacts of plastic pollution on the global food system, the carbon cycle, ocean biodiversity and overall ecosystem resilience. Other mentioned factors included the loss of human well-being due to a visible decline in charismatic species, the loss of tourism revenues, clean-up expenses, and injuries suffered by clean-up workers and beach visitors as a result of sharp plastic debris. The costs of many of these are hard to calculate, if possible at all.
Dr. Nicola Beaumont, the lead author of the study and an economist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory emphasized the need for a holisitic approach in understanding the toll plastic waste takes on the seas and their inhabitants. “Our calculations are the first stab at ‘putting a price on plastic,’” he said. “We know we have to do more research to refine, but we are convinced that already they are an underestimate of the real costs to global human society.”
The staggering cost might lead some policymakers to call for action such as increasing taxes on pollution or replacing plastics with alternatives. Yet economics based on numbers and estimates alone can never be a perfect guide for action. Nature’s wonders are literally priceless. The authors note that the cumulative impacts of damage caused by marine plastic waste might be far greater than suggested by the initial results, while each extra tone of plastic in the oceans is likely to cost society more than the previous one.
Beyond market logic, we urgently need to make conscious choices about the future we want, no matter whether the market tells us that plastic is cheap or expensive, or whether solar is going up or down. We need governments and society to commit to a future that affirms and sustains life, and not the future where numbers decide how much marine biodiversity we can afford.