Researchers with the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the United Kingdom, Universities of Stirling and Surrey in the UK, and the Arctic University of Norway, have released a study that has come up with a monetary figure of the cost of plastics found in the world’s oceans.

The study, “Global ecological, social and economic impacts of marine plastic” found that plastics that enter the world’s oceans, which they have labeled “marine plastic,” has huge negative impacts not only on the organisms that live in the oceans, but also to human health and wellbeing via what the researchers call marine ecosystems services. These services impact many of the foods that we eat (fisheries, aquaculture and materials for agricultural use), as well as the oxygen that we breathe, ocean recreation and leisure (heritage, culture and emotional importance, and experiential recreation and tourism), and climate and weather.

Fig. 1. Conceptual diagram describing the three-step approach used to assess the societal impacts of marine plastic pollution. Outputs from all three steps (in dark blue) can be used to influence the key drivers of the sources of plastic pollution. Source: Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

“We now know enough to be very concerned about how marine plastics are affecting sea life from our megafauna to the tiny creatures near the base of the food web – zooplankton,” Dr. Nicola Beaumont, an environmental economist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and lead author of the study said in a statement released by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. “This study, for the first time shows that, while we should be concerned about ecological impacts, we should equally be worried about the economic and societal consequences which relate directly to our own health and wellbeing. Our calculations are a first stab at ‘putting a price on plastic’, we know we have to do more research to refine them, but we are convinced that already they are an underestimate of the real costs to global human society.

. 2. Ecosystem impacts of marine plastic on biota. A score of −9 means: lethal or sub-lethal effect which is global, highly irreversible, and occurring at a high frequency; a score of +9 means: positive effect in terms of diversity and/or abundance, which is global, highly irreversible, and occurring at a high frequency. Source: Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

To come up with the dollar figure, the researchers looked at the global economic impact of plastics and then translated that data into ecosystem services impacts. They found that there will be a yearly 1 to 5 percent decline in marine ecosystems services delivery at an annual loss of $US 500 million to $2.5 billion in the value of the services mentioned above.
From a cost per ton of plastic perspective, the researchers claimed a reduced environmental value between $3,300 and $33,000 per ton of marine plastic. This is based on 2011 estimates of 75 and 150 million tons of plastic dumped in the world’s oceans.

“Knowing this price can help us make informed decisions: recycling a tonne of plastic costs us hundreds against the costs of thousands if we let it into the marine environment; we now trade carbon to reduce emissions to the atmosphere, we should be able to do something similar with plastics,” Beaumont said. “We hope this study will highlight the reality of the plastic problem in human terms. It’s time this aspect of plastic pollution was part of the global conversation; policy makers and industry need to wake up to this aspect of plastic pollution and begin to make the changes our ocean and our futures need.” 

“Only by doing this can we help inform a realistic and responsible global transition in the way we make, use, replace and reuse, rather than dispose of, plastic,” the researchers wrote.

The complete paper, “Global ecological, social and economic impacts of marine plastic,” can be read in its entirely on ScienceDirect.com.