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.1-s2.0-S0025326X19302061-main