April 9, 2019

Researchers Call for Efforts to Quantify “Social Cost of Marine Plastic”

News Source: SDG Knowledge Hub

Author(s): Catherine Benson Wahlén

An article published in Marine Pollution Bulletin takes a first step at calculating the cost of marine plastic pollution and finds that all ecosystem services are impacted by marine plastic pollution to at least some extent. The authors warn that reduction in ecosystem service provision will have negative impacts on human health and well-being, and recommends a global transition in the way the world makes, uses and reuses plastic.

The article titled, ‘Global Ecological, Social and Economic Impacts of Marine Plastic,’ synthesizes currently available research to conduct a global assessment of the “ecological, ecosystem service” and social and economic impacts of marine plastic, including examining the drivers, sources and distribution of marine plastics. The assessment finds that the presence of marine plastic impacts all ecosystem services and reduces the provision predicted for all these ecosystem services, with one exception (“regulation of the chemical condition of salt waters by living processes”). In particular, the article identifies the negative impacts of marine plastic pollution on three critical ecosystem services: provision of fisheries, aquaculture and materials for agricultural use; heritage, or the cultural and emotional importance to individuals of charismatic marine organisms, such as turtles; and experiential recreation, with visitors choosing to spend less time in recreational areas with litter or being exposed to sharp debris or unsanitary items. The authors further caution that shifts in biodiversity and an altered marine environment can lead to additional impacts, including impairing ecosystem recovery and resilience.

The authors use the ecosystem service impact findings to make an initial assessment of the economic costs of marine plastic. They predict a one percent to five percent reduction in marine ecosystem service delivery as a result of the stock of marine plastic in oceans, noting that this figure is likely an underestimate because it does not include broader economic and social costs, nor does it account for data gaps. This predicted decline translates into approximately USD 500 billion to 2,500 billion annually. The authors propose this figure as an initial step towards developing a more comprehensive and rigorous ‘Social Cost of Marine Plastic.’ They recommend additional efforts to calculate the economic costs per tonne of marine plastic, arguing that such figures are critical to inform global discussions on the design, production, and use, re-use and re-processing of plastic.