Social and economic cost of plastic waste grossly underestimated, researchers suggest

Social and economic cost of plastic waste grossly underestimated, researchers suggest

April 9, 2019
Marcia González

Plastic pollution now has a price tag attached to it – and the figure is quite simply astonishing

Something in the region of 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste has been dumped into the world’s oceans since 2010, at a severe cost to marine life. Now, though, the financial cost of that negligence has been calculated and revealed in a new study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin. The pollution caused damage to fisheries, recreational activities and global well-being and could total an unfathomable US$2.5 trillion.

The comprehensive study reports that marine ecosystem services, such as providing food for humans and storing large amounts of carbon dioxide, have added up to US$49.7 trillion per year since 2011. Findings indicate that plastic pollution harms the productivity of these services and causes a decline between 1-5% in marine ecosystem service delivery, which is equal to an annual loss of US$500 billion to US$2.5 trillion.

Researchers analyzed how ingesting plastics and becoming entangled in them impacts birds, fish, mammals and turtles, and found that it caused a decline in efficiency and productivity of commercial fisheries and has a direct risk to fish stocks.

Seafood is the main source of animal protein for 1.4 billion people, which makes up 19% of the global population. Even some aquatic species that live in the deepest, most remote parts of the oceans have ingested plastic, and there is growing concern over the amount of plastic humans are ingesting from eating seafood.

“Our calculations are a first stab at ‘putting a price on plastic’,” study lead Dr Nicola Beaumont told The Guardian. “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.”

Beaumont added that 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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