Plastic Watch: 2.5 Trillion Dollar Annual Cost of Ocean Plastic Pollution

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Last week, scientists led by a group at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in Devon published a study in Marine Pollution Bulletin that’s the first to attempt to quantify the economic costs of marine plastic pollution.

An estimated 8 million tons of plastic ends up on the world’s oceans each year, according to The Guardian in Marine plastic pollution costs the world up to $2.5tn a year.

The study’s takeaway:

On a global scale, it has been estimated that for 2011 marine ecosystem services provided benefits to society approximating $49.7 trillion1 per year (Constanza et al., 2014). Most of the values on which this approximation was calculated were based on maximum sustainable use (actual or hypothetical) of natural (or semi-natural) systems, reflecting functioning biomes with minimal anthropogenic disruption. While limitations in its accuracy are acknowledged, this figure is considered to provide sufficient precision for global analysis and an estimate of the decline in its value, due to the presence of marine plastic, can be taken as a first order approximation of an economic cost.

This 1–5% decline in marine ecosystem service delivery equates to an annual loss of $500–$2500 billion in the value of benefits derived from marine ecosystem services. With the 2011 stock of plastic in the marine environment having been estimated between 75 and 150 million tonnes (Jang et al., 2015; McKinsey, 2015), this would equate in 2011, under 2011 levels of marine plastic pollution and based on 2011 ecosystem services values to each tonne of plastic in the ocean having an annual cost in terms of reduced marine natural capital of between $3300 and $33,000.

This postulation of an economic cost relates only to the impacts of marine plastic on marine natural capital and as such represents a ‘lower bound’ of the full economic costs of marine plastic. This figure does however illustrate the potential order of magnitude of the impacts. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

As Waste Dive reports in Study: Up to $2.5T lost to marine plastics each year

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.

According to The Guardian:

Dr Nicola Beaumont, an environmental economist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, who led the study, said the investigation was the first of its kind to explore the social and economic impact of plastics in the sea.

“Our calculations are a first stab at ‘putting a price on plastic’. 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,” said Beaumont.

The estimates do not take into account the direct and indirect impacts on the tourism, transport and fisheries industries, or on human health, the authors warned.

Defining and understanding the scope of the plastic problem is necessary to design a global policy response. Given the failure of governments to respond to the climate change threat, I am not optimistic about their ability to tackle the plastic problem any time soon. According to the study:

A solid understanding of the ecological, social and economic impact of marine plastic is necessary to inform a global transition in the way we make, use and reuse plastic, in such a way as to eliminate negative impacts, with implications for public behaviour, legislation and governance, industry and commerce (Pahl et al., 2017). This understanding is integral in providing grounding for effective and efficient global negotiation regarding the sustainable use, management and disposal of plastic, a material with many benefits and in widespread use.

Plastic Is Not the Only Threat to the Health of Oceans

On Friday, Yves linked to a depressing article  in Inverse, The Ocean’s Tipping Point Has Been Reached, that states its thesis in its headline:

….But it needs to be reiterated that the ocean is in danger. The impacts of climate change and illegal, unregulated, and unreported fisheries are the main challenges that the ocean faces. Ghost fishing gear — items that have been lost, abandoned, or disposed of — continue to catch marine organisms.

Plastic pollution is big concern, but only one threat to the health of oceans – and not even the most serious one:

More recently, plastic has emerged as a visible sign of ocean pollution. Plastic is not the biggest issue facing the ocean, but it is a useful way to get people to see that there are problems.

What Is to Be Done?

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I find writing about plastic deeply depressing.

That being said, I don’t like to end my posts on a note of despair.

So I should note for UK readers that yesterday, the charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), launched its Big Spring Beach Clean.  Its probably too late for any UK readers hearing about this campaign for the first time to participate in any activities this weekend, but the event will continue through the 14th of April (and in some instances, extend beyond). This link includes details on beach clean-up projects throughout the UK.

SAS says that since it started this initiative  in 2010, 74,500 people have participated in more than 1,775 events across the UK, removing more than 150,000 kilograms of marine litter – including 50,000 plastic bottles and cans – from UK beaches.

Yes, it would be far better not to dump waste in the ocean to begin with.

And yes, I also understand that individual actions alone won’t solve the world’s plastic pollution. problem

Yet as a veteran of many clean-up projects, starting with the Brownies (e.g., wee Girl Scouts) in my home town more than fifty years ago – Yikes! – and including several more recent beach clean-up projects, I know that participating in these efforts is satisfying. One meets like-minded people, and at the end of the day, the space is cleaner than it was before. At least for the time being.

And, perhaps, helping clean up a local beach might prove to be a welcome diversion to thinking about Brexit.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Wombat

    After just returning from a cleanup I can add:

    Styrofoam must be plastic’s silent killer… picking up water bottles – thats easy, on the other hand the little fragments of styrofoam are impossible to root out and are completely mixed in with twigs and natural sediment. Styrofoam simply needs to go, and fast.

    I wish this cleanup (and other instagramable efforts) focused more on removing mass of waste rather than minimizing blight in public areas. Today’s cleanup appeared more to be a virtue signalling, photo op in an accessible area. From my running in the area’s trails, I know where the plastic accumulates…. in the muddy wetlands that aren’t by a parking area. I told the cleanup director where there was at least 20x the plastic density, and suggested a cleanup there. She seemed more concerned with accessibility. But in the end, we were just the drunk guy looking for his keys underneath the street light.

  2. Cal2

    Suggest an economic revitalization and plastic waste elimination program through the use of graduated retail deposits on plastic which can be a simple formula.

    Make the deposit the exact price, with tax, of the plastic item, or container with minimums:
    All items to be returned to retail point of sale.
    Water bottles, $2 each. Yes, that’s more than the cost of the water.
    A plastic gas can, $7 + tax at a gas station. etc.
    All costs associated with this to be paid for by the companies that create the plastic pellets that are molded into the plastic. In the U.S. that’s Dow Chemical and General Electric and a few others.

    A labor, bookkeeping, material handling nightmare? Nope, it’s a jobs program and helps raise GDP.
    If Americans shouldn’t even think about demanding National Healthcare, Medicare For All, or Single Payer–because of all the jobs it would destroy in health care billing, insurance, handling, profit distribution etc, then corporations should be overjoyed to create all these new jobs in recycling.

    Bulk plastic, such as styrofoam packing material, completely illegal.
    Foam building insulation, a hefty fee that goes to environmental restoration.

    Parts in cars, computers, etc? Hefty fee as well. Over all goal, make plastic manufacturers pay for the costs of their chosen material and create an alternative that is biodegradable and safe.

    Wombat, before you order anything online, over the phone or at retail, let them know any item with any styrofoam packaging will be returned for full refund, or, charged as credit card fraud. At retail, open packages to check for styrofoam, leave the opened product at the checkout and explain why you won’t buy it.
    Bring any that you discover in a product, or other plastic if you are hard core, back to the store and leave it at the customer service desk. We do that at Costco. “We can’t recycle this” they say. “Neither can we”, Say we.

    1. Simeon Hope

      What are your suggested alternatives to all the various plastics we enjoy? Your self-righteous comment has nothing,.

      1. Cal2

        A. Biodegradable corn or wheat based polymers that self disintegrate after six months when exposed to water and air, ideal for packaging perishables such as milk, butter, or yogurt, products which have a shelf life of a week or two.

        B. Cardboard, folded in various configurations can and does replace styrofoam and other packing material.

        C. Glass bottles,with a deposit, or not, for all drinks.

        D. Paper cartons lined with plant based waxes for milk cartons and other juices. “Aseptic boxes,” they are called, quite common already.

        E. Cotton, Wool and biofiber to replace plastic clothing.

        Some products must be made of plastic, like nylon motor parts. Hefty deposit assures return to factory for recycling or proper disposal.

        Sounds to me like you own a stranded investment in a plastics injection factory, or, have a deep financial interest in perpetuating pollution for profit.

        So, what are your creative alternates and suggestions?

  3. Cal2

    Forgot to add, name and shame the enemies of the Earth.
    AARP is now sending out two credit card sized unrecyclable plastic “membership cards” with each of their tens of millions of junk postal mail solicitations. That’s hudreds of tons of plastic cards that will end up in landfills and the ocean.

    The return envelope unfortunately does not have a postal contract to send it back to them at their expense.

    Paraphrasing George W. Bush:
    “You are either with the Earth, or you are with the environmental terrorists.”

    To hell with AARP, which is by the way, an insurance company masquerading as a non-profit.

    1. Wombat

      Name and Shame: Luxury grocery stores like Wegmans and Whole Foods that encourage their righteous customers to use reusable bags at check out, but then use licentious plastic packaging for the myriad of convenience deli and food items down to hard plastic shells for single heads of organic lettuce.

    2. Arizona Slim

      I haven’t had any inclination to join AARP. Thanks for giving me more reasons to avoid this organization.

  4. Susan the other`

    One tonne has a minimum estimated economic expense of $33,000. A very expensive commodity. Nobody’s advocating a plastic tax? I wonder why. You could almost say that it isn’t fossil fuels that are the bad thing, but the way we use them. So the end products – designed for convenience and excess – should be the thing we tax because they are the thing we produce. It’s hard for me to imagine that much plastic compacted into huge blocks and measured by volume. Is it enough to contribute to ocean rise? The most frightening aspect of this runaway mis-production of plastic (we need a word to describe this, no?) is all the costs that go undocumented. The oceans are sick. And dying. The collapse is in progress. But instead we worry about all those poor, disappointed tourists on a cruise ship disembarking in some stinking, icky, ugly bay and eating bad shrimp.

  5. tegnost

    “You could almost say that it isn’t fossil fuels that are the bad thing, but the way we use them. So the end products – designed for convenience and excess – should be the thing we tax because they are the thing we produce.”
    absolutely, and regarding what we do with them…
    just another reason to hate fracking if you needed another one, the profit the noxious byproducts provide is the dirty dark secret.

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    I don’t believe there are any Market ‘solutions’ that will fix the problems of pollution. So this whole business of putting a dollar cost on pollution bothers me. We need strong government regulations and enforcement with criminal penalties attached. And the root problems can only be solved through some radical restructuring of our economies in ways no Market ‘solution’ can ‘know’ or achieve.

    1. Andy Raushner

      You need strong eco-nationalism and make it tribal. It will rile up those bourgeois nationalists and send napalm up their arse.

      1. Acacia

        What would “tribal eco-nationalism” look like?

        One thing that comes to mind: a few years ago, I visited Ishigaki, one of the southern Okinawan islands, which is a part of Japan. Not far from Taiwan and China. Half of the beaches were beautiful with fine white sand and coral reefs, while the other half were covered with plastic garbage that is mostly from China (you can tell from the labeling). Thousands of PET bottles, fishing floats, styrofoam and even spent light bulbs washed up everywhere. I’d never experienced this kind of natural beauty despoiled so it was pretty shocking, really. What I saw was just what had washed up on this one island, so it made me wonder how much is still out at sea. The “prestige” beaches were immaculate, though, so I gather there are local yokai to stealthily clean select spots like Kariba Bay such that they appear as pristine nature, while the “natural” beaches are dotted with the junk that nobody can clear every day.

        My Japanese acquaintance said there used to be a lot of trash from South Korea (labeling in Hangul) but S.K. has since cleaned up their act. At least among the people I’ve spoken with, there is a sense of China as a big polluter, whereas Japan is quite strict about separating plastics in trash and recycling PET bottles. Even the plastic caps are separated. The bottles all come with labeling which is printed onto a separate sheet of plastic which can be torn off via a pair of dotted lines. The “rule” is that one should remove the label and lightly wash the plastic bottle before recycling.

        So, there’s a nationalistic dimension to the attitude about plastic use, though I should add that when I’ve asked Japanese how PET bottles are actually recycled, none of my contacts have been able to answer.

    2. John

      Yeah but every time there’s a debate on an environmental issue, the conservatives (and many Democrats, for that matter) say “but the economic costs…jobs.” The environmentalists will say something like “we need to value more than just GDP” or “the long-term costs of inaction are much greater than the cost of doing something now.”

      Those are answers that work just fine for those with economic security–people from the upper-middle class that are the most likely to vote on, organize around, and make consumption choices based on environmental issues–but for those that are below the middle class (as well as those who aren’t but only care about money, which characterizes most people in the ruling classes), those answers just aren’t going to work. We’ve been losing trying to make those arguments for the past 30-40 years. But if we can demonstrate to people in objective terms the actual economic costs of the environmental problem in question, we can blow the conservative “but jobs” argument right out of the water. It doesn’t mean we have to use a “market solution” like a plastic tax, it just shows that any solution, market-friendly or not, is better than the status quo according to the same cost-benefit analysis that the other side attempts to use in order to justify it.

      1. a different chris

        Yeah and I could have written the same thing, but suddenly AOC comes out of nowhere (or more accurately from my upper-middle-class white guy point of view, a symbol and representative of people I just don’t bump elbows with too often to my shame) and puts the Green New Deal front and center.

        Which I believe blows your argument right out of the water. I decided that it certainly did mine.

        And yes, the Democratic Party is the worst because they believe this. And they believe it’s more important to win elections than scream about what’s really needed. Of course, they then don’t win elections either and wonder why.

        1. John

          No, not quite.

          The Green New Deal is prescriptive; it’s the solution.

          Natural capital accounting is descriptive–it’s about communicating to people the economic costs of inaction. It doesn’t tell us how we should solve a problem, it just tells us that it is there. It is not a policy solution but, rather, a communication tool, and it’s one that the environmental movement should add to its toolbox, because it’s more compelling to the underprivileged than “let’s save the polar bears.”

          AOC has definitely used natural capital accounting in trying to sell the Green New Deal. She discussed the economic impacts of climate change, and that drew upon methods of natural capital accounting. You’re trying to imply that the natural capital accounting and a Green New Deal are somehow incompatible or contradictory, but that is completely false.

          You can use natural capital accounting to compare two different solutions if you want to, but that’s not what you’re talking about, so I’ll leave that there.

  7. a different chris

    The “Big Spring Beach Clean” sounds like a wonderful thing.

    However, sigh, we speak of “clean up” when actually we are simply moving the crap from one place, the beach, to another, the waste dump. That’s not really cleaning up Earth-wide, is it? Although it is of course a bit less of an issue in a hole in the ground.

    But only a bit.

  8. John

    Going beyond but also including plastic, how about no more corporate externalization of costs. No more privatize the profits, socialize the costs. No corporate socialism that allows them to foist cost of whole life cycles off onto the public at large. You make it, you cover the costs for the whole life cycle.

    1. Simeon Hope

      Still: what are the alternatives available today to each use of plastic, and what are their disadvantages? Plastic is a very complex set of problems.

    2. John

      It’s a great idea. But the problem is that you would need to make a precise and accurate calculation of the externalities of every product in order to unleash market forces favoring more sustainable products at the expense of less sustainable ones (in order to come up with the tax that would make more sustainable products cheaper compared to less sustainable ones), and those calculations are 1) extremely time-consuming and, thus, expensive, and 2) aren’t precise enough for meaningful comparison between products.

  9. Anarcissie

    Some plastics are biodegradable. And, as evolution proceeds, more and more will be, for the numerous species of microorganisms that can live on and eat plastic are cross-breeding and proliferating. The problem with this is that no one knows what the new microorganisms will be like; they might well not be nice, or they may produce something even worse than plastic. But at least be assured, Nature or Gaia or whatever you want to call it has taken notice and is responding. As for the microorganisms, they are older than we are, more numerous, weigh more, travel more, and are smarter in their funny way — it took them only 70 or 80 years to neutralize most antibiotics. Their powers should not be underestimated.

  10. The Rev Kev

    Thanks for those post Jerri-Lynn. A year ago if asked, I would have said that plastic may sometimes be a nuisance but that the material itself seemed pretty solid to be a hazard. How things change – and mostly due to your articles which talked about the quality of the menace of the pollution resulting from such widespread use of it. I was in the kitchen yesterday and as an intellectual exercise, I was identifying the plastic present and what could be substituted for it. Then I woke up to the fact that to know the answer the answer to that, just see how things were done just three generations or so ago in old photos. It would not create such a colossal effort to mostly eliminate plastics from family homes and I guess that we can get by without plastic Tupperware. But it is going to be a major effort to get people to give up on so much use of this material. Maybe best like now getting the elimination of disposable plastics done first.

Comments are closed.