Scientists warn that social and economic price of plastic waste to global society has been underestimated
Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans costs society billions of dollars every year in damaged and lost resources, research has found.
Fisheries, aquaculture, recreational activities and global wellbeing are all negatively affected by plastic pollution, with an estimated 1-5% decline in the benefit humans derive from oceans. The resulting cost in such benefits, known as marine ecosystem value, is up to $2.5tn (£1.9tn) a year, according to a study published this week in Marine Pollution Bulletin.
Plastic waste is also believed to cost up to $33,000 per ton in reduced environmental value, the study found. An estimated 8m tons of plastic pollution enter the world’s oceans every year.
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.
Plastic waste can be found all over the world – from the most populated coastlines to the most remote – and its impact on zooplankton, invertebrates, fish, turtles, birds and mammals is all negative, the study found. But authors discovered that plastics – which can remain buoyant for decades or longer, travelling distances of more than 3,000km from origin – create new habitats for bacteria and algae. These “colonies” increase the biogeographical range of bacteria and algae, thereby risking the spread of invasive species and disease, the research found.
Dr Kayleigh Wyles, an environmental psychology lecturer at the University of Surrey, said the research was the first to show the “holistic” impact of plastic pollution.
“As well as the devastating effect plastics have on our ecological and marine systems, they also directly and indirectly impact society,” she said.
“Quantifying the enormous tangible and intangible costs associated with marine plastic waste can only help to make the case for devoting our attention and resources now to protecting the seas for future generations to enjoy.”
Beaumont said she too hoped the study would streamline services to address plastic pollution and “help us make informed decisions”.
“Recycling a ton of plastic costs us hundreds against the costs of thousands if we let it into the marine environment,” she said.
“We now trade carbon to reduce emissions to the atmosphere, so we should be able to do something similar with plastics. We hope this study will highlight the reality of the plastic problem in human terms.”
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