Ocean Plastic Pollution Costs the Planet $2.5 Trillion Per Year

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Trash and pollution gathering along rocks in Hout Bay, South Africa

Steve Corner / Getty Images 

Global plastic pollution and the damage it causes to marine ecosystems now has a price tag attached to it. A team of researchers from the UK and Norway analyzed the many ways in which plastic pollution damages or destroys natural resources, and came up with a staggering figure – $2.5 billion – as the annual cost to society.

Much of our current understanding about plastic pollution is on a local level that cannot be interpreted easily on a global scale; and yet, this is a global threat. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans annually, and because of its material persistence and ability to disperse widely, must be viewed from a broader perspective if we hope to tackle it effectively.

Benefits of Marine Ecosystems

The researchers, whose study was just published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, looked at the many ways in which marine ecosystems benefit the planet, including food provision for billions of people, carbon storage, waste detoxification, and cultural benefits (recreational and spiritual). When these benefits are threatened by the presence of plastic, it "has the potential to significantly impact the wellbeing of humans across the globe, owing to the loss of food security, livelihoods, income and good health."

Some key areas of concern include:

  1. Seafood: It is a dietary staple for 20 percent of the global population, but is threatened by marine plastic pollution, both in terms of contaminating the food chain and posing a physical entanglement risk to fish stocks.
  2. Heritage: Certain marine species, such as sea turtles, whales, and birds, hold deep cultural and emotional significance to individuals. These species are harmed by plastic through entanglement and ingestion, and there is evidence that harm to these populations would have "an accompanying loss of human wellbeing."
  3. Experiential recreation: Humans' enjoyment of coastal regions, i.e. walking on a beach, is lessened by the presence of plastic. There is concern that people will spend less time in these regions if they're contaminated, which could result in loss of tourism, clean up expenses, increased injuries, and reduction in physical activity.
  4. Shifting ecology: Perhaps most disturbing is the study's discovery of bacterial and algal populations having a greater number of places to live and grow, thanks to plastic. These containers don't biodegrade or sink, and can float as far as 3,000 km from their place of origin: "Colonisation of plastic provides a mechanism for movement of organisms between biomes, thus potentially increasing their biogeographical range and risking the spread of invasive species and disease."

Overall Impact of Ocean Plastic Pollution

The researchers suggest that plastic is responsible for a 1 to 5 percent decline in the benefit humans derive from the oceans. With plastic costing the planet anywhere from $3,300 to $33,000 per ton in reduced environmental value, and using estimates from 2011 that the oceans contained between 75 and 150 million tons of plastic at that time (probably much more now), the $2.5 billion price tag was reached.

Lead study author, Dr. Nicola Beaumont, said,

"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."

This quantification, the researchers believe, will help people to make a case for immediate and decisive action on marine plastic pollution. Dr. Beaumont told the Guardian that she "hoped the study would streamline services to address plastic pollution and help us make informed decisions."

Read whole study here.