We’ve all seen the heartbreaking photos of animals being caught up in plastic waste and often killed. We’ve all seen the reports of whales, dolphins, birds and other marine animals washing up dead on beaches with stomachs full of plastic bags and other objects. Just last week, a pregnant sperm whale washed up on a beach on Sardinia with almost 50 pounds of plastic…
The effects that plastics are having on the environment are clear to see, yet so much still needs to be done to reduce the amount we use. Many have sat up and taken notice of just how devastating the impact that plastics are having is with the help of programs like Blue Planet 2 highlighting the problem. Governments are acting very slowly to ban single-use plastics and companies are also slowly making important and much-needed changes that will reduce the amount of plastic used.
What if the impact was reframed though? The environmental impact we’re having isn’t forcing us to act as quickly as we should be but what if the impact of plastics could be argued in economic terms?
The Economic Impact of Plastic
That’s exactly what a number of researchers have attempted to do. Researchers from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory have completed an investigation into the economic impact of plastic in our ocean that is the first of its kind and the findings are very disturbing.
We all knew that plastic pollution was having a very negative impact on the marine ecosystems but it is also having major impacts on global economies and society. Fisheries, aquaculture, recreational activities and global wellbeing are just a few factors impacted by plastic pollution with estimates of a 1–5% annual decrease in benefits that we receive from global oceans. That annual reduction in benefits is estimated to cost up to US$2.5 trillion.
Yes. That is correct. $2.5 TRILLION.
Just to put that in perspective, that is equal to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of France, the 7th largest economy in the world (according to 2017 World Bank data). Every year, plastic pollution costs every country around the world $2.5 trillion and it’s likely that poorer countries are affected more than the richer, Western countries that can afford to clean beaches and coastlines.
Each tonne of plastic in global oceans costs around $33,000 in reduced environmental value and around 8 million tonnes of plastic enters our oceans each year, all just adding to what is already there. With the global population expected to rise to almost 10 billion by 2050, without a drastic change that number could be much higher if we don’t start to act. We’re all going to be paying for the cleanup, we must do what we can to reduce the amount that ends up in our oceans in the future.
Still More to the Story
The estimates made in the journal don’t even include every impact plastic pollution has on local and national economies. Factors like the direct and indirect impacts on tourism, transport, the fishing industry, or human health were not taken into account when considering the economic estimate of plastic pollution.
Including those factors above would raise the cost estimate dramatically and show how plastic pollution is having a much greater impact on poorer countries, particularly island nations. These factors shouldn’t be disregarded and future attempts to quantify them to produce a monetary value should and will be developed, giving us a much more complete estimate of the cost of plastic pollution.
What Can You Do?
Every country around the world is affected by marine plastic pollution, even those that are landlocked, so it is up to us all to make changes to reduce the amount of plastic we use. That can start with just everyday decisions like avoiding food and other products that are wrapped in plastic and choosing different products or a different place to shop.
Sometimes it isn’t possible to avoid plastic. So many products are packaged in plastics that are almost unavoidable. Fortunately, however, there are a number of initiatives that are finding ways to recycle and reuse unavoidable plastics. Ecobricks is just one that takes plastic bottles and softer plastics to make building blocks that can continually be reused!
We can also do so much more than just simple behaviour change and reducing the plastic we consume. At the moment we’re in the middle of the Great British Spring Clean — a month-long event encouraging people to take part in cleaning local green, urban and beach areas. Just two weeks ago I took part in one at Barton-On-Sea with over 60 others, collecting a total of 125kg of waste (mostly plastic) from the beach! Grab a pair of gloves and a bucket and head to a beach, nature reserve or green area and start picking up rubbish!
Now There’s an Economic Argument
Not only is there an environmental argument for reducing the amount of plastic we consume but now there’s an economic one. $2.5 trillion is a huge cost to countries all over the world and we’re all affected. Important change needs to come from national governments and businesses from the local to global scale but there is still so much more we can all do to reduce the impact we’re having.
You may think that simple decisions like that don’t make a difference or that any plastic you use will end up in a landfill and buried to decompose over the hundreds of years it takes plastic to break down. However, there is no guarantee that that happens. Even in the UK, any number of things could happen that would increase the amount of waste that enters the natural environment. It may be out of sight and out of mind but that waste could still end up in the natural environment or in our oceans!
Originally published at thinksustainabilityblog.com on April 12, 2019.