Editor’s note: The deluge of popular articles and reports on marine plastic continues, but here at The Skimmer, we became curious about one important area where we weren’t seeing as much information – how marine plastic pollution is affecting ocean users and the Blue Economy. We know that marine plastic is pretty much everywhere in the ocean and can have horrific effects on individual marine organisms – think whales and seabirds with bellies full of plastic – but that the research is just not there to fully assess the severity of marine ecosystem-level impacts.

But aside from the unpleasant views of trash-strewn beaches and coastal waters, how are people, cities, and countries affected? One important reason to dig into this area and have this information readily available is that money talks. If the harm to marine life doesn’t convince decision makers to make difficult changes to address marine plastic pollution, maybe understanding the economic and social impacts can.

So big picture, what is marine plastic pollution costing us?

  • Before we dive into numbers, it is important to understand that two fundamental mismatches are at the heart of marine plastic pollution problem:

    1. When we use plastic, we are using an incredibly durable material for a lot of very short-term uses. Plastic items can take decades and centuries to degrade in the ocean (and then break up into even smaller plastic pieces). Our major use of plastics (36% of plastic use) is for packaging, however, which has an average useful life of 6 months or less.
    2. Marine plastic pollution is the result of a failure in economic markets. Specifically, the price of making and using things made out of plastic does not reflect the full cost of disposing of that plastic. Instead, that cost is passed on to other entities, often coastal municipalities and ocean users.
  • So what does marine plastic pollution cost society? By one estimate, at least US$13 billion a year. This estimate was derived by estimating what it would cost companies that produce consumer goods to “internalize” the costs associated with their current practices (e.g., pay for cleanup of plastic waste). $13 billion a year is likely to be a significant underestimate too because there is so little information on the impacts of plastic waste (e.g., for microplastics) and it doesn’t include costs such as the transport of invasive marine species attached to plastics in the ocean.
  • Moreover, this US$13 billion for marine plastic pollution is just a fraction of the overall cost to society of the production of plastic consumer goods (which is estimated to be at least US$75 billion a year). Other major costs to society from producing plastics include the costs associated with air pollution from incinerating plastic, and greenhouse gas emissions from extracting and processing raw materials. [To put this in perspective, estimates of the value of the global plastics market range from ~ US$650 billion to US$1.2 trillion.]
  • Another effort to value the social and economic impacts of marine plastic pollution looks at how it affects marine ecosystem services. Researchers found that marine plastic has a negative impact on most ecosystem services, including fisheries, aquaculture, climate regulation, pest and disease control, heritage values, and recreation. Their back-of-the-envelope calculation is that marine plastic pollution has reduced marine ecosystem service delivery by at least 1-5%, for an annual loss of US$500-2500 billion to society. (This amounts to somewhere between US$3300 and $33,000 per ton of marine plastic pollution.) This estimate does not even include the social and economic costs to tourism, fisheries, shipping, and human health that we discuss below.

Okay, so that’s the big picture. What about various sectors? How are they affected?

  • As we dig into the impacts of marine plastic pollution on different sectors of the Blue Economy, it is important to make it clear that we are really only beginning to understand the costs associated with marine plastic pollution. There is more research on the impacts to coastal communities, tourism, and fisheries than other sectors, but even in these areas, there are still big gaps in our understanding.
  • It is also important to understand that there are different types of costs, and we are much farther along at quantifying some than others. Three types of costs include:

    • Actual expenditures that people or groups in a sector need to make to prevent or recover from damage, e.g., the costs of cleaning up beaches, the costs of fixing vessels, the costs repairing fishing gear damaged by plastic marine debris, and the costs of medical care for marine-debris related accidents or illnesses. These costs are typically the easiest to quantify.
    • Losses of output or revenue due to interactions with marine plastic pollution, e.g., the revenue from fish that couldn’t be caught because a net was full of debris or the spending of potential beachgoers who decided not to go to the beach because of litter.
    • Welfare costs that include human health impacts and loss of ecosystem services such as aesthetics or recreation. These costs are typically the hardest to quantify.
  • So let’s dive in by looking at the costs of marine plastic pollution to coastal communities, which typically bear the brunt of the expense of cleaning up coastlines and disposing of waste.

    • In the UK, coastal municipalities spend ~ US$24 million a year to remove beach litter, with most of this in labor costs.[1]
    • The Netherlands and Belgium spend over US$13 million annually to remove beach litter.
    • Communities along the West Coast of the US spend ~ US$13 a year per resident on beach and waterway cleanup, street sweeping, installation of storm-water capture devices, storm drain cleaning and maintenance, manual cleanup of litter, and public anti-littering campaigns to clean up and prevent marine plastic pollution.
    • A province in Sweden with a population of ~ 300,000 spends over US$1.5 million a year on cleaning its beaches.
    • A district in Peru with ~ 250,000 residents estimates that it would have to spend more than twice its annual budget for cleaning all public areas (~ US$200,000) to clean its coastline.
  • In addition to the costs of cleanup, plastic waste presents a host of other problems for coastal (and inland) communities. For starters, plastic waste clogs storm drains, causing flooding. For instance, Bangkok removes ~ 2,000 tons of waste – much of it plastic bags – out of its drainage channels daily to prevent flooding. And similar problems plague cities the world over, from Bangladesh to Boston. In addition, plastic waste holds water and creates habitat for mosquitos; incineration of plastic waste creates air pollution; and massive garbage dumps – created in large part and then made unstable by plastic waste – are prone to collapse, killing nearby residents.
  • One of the reasons that coastal communities go to the trouble of cleaning up marine litter (in addition to not wanting their storm drains clogged and not liking mosquitos) is that tourists and recreational users of coastlines dislike litter and will avoid areas that are littered or that they anticipate will be littered. For instance, a study conducted in Cape Town, South Africa, found that 2 large pieces of marine debris per meter of beach would keep 85% of tourists from going to a beach. In Brazil, more than 85% of beachgoers said that they would avoid a beach if there were more than 15 pieces of litter per square meter.
  • A variety of studies have estimated the potential financial impact of reduced tourism due to marine litter.

  • The iconic tropical tourist destination of Bali has become an unfortunate poster child for the problems that marine plastic pollution can cause. In Bali, hundreds of workers clean tons of marine debris off beaches daily, with some hotels resorting to burying the trash in the sand to keep it out of view. A stretch of beach on the island’s western coast has been declared an emergency zone due to the amount of plastic washing up there, and the island recently banned single-use plastics to help deal with the problem.

Wow, that all sounds pretty unfortunate. What other industries are affected?

And what about the Blue Economy’s most valuable resource – its people?

Anything else?

So what can we do about marine plastic pollution? Stay tuned for a quick overview of what we know works (or should work) to reduce marine plastic pollution in next month’s Skimmer!


[1] Some of the following estimates are for beach litter rather than just plastic litter, but plastic comprises a large percentage of beach litter. It is estimated that ~ 60-80% of marine debris is plastic.


Image 1: Coastal Trash, Baseco, Manila. Taken by Adam Cohn, 2014. Obtained via Flickr

Image 2: National Park Service cleaning up a beach. Obtained via: https://www.nps.gov/articles/aps-15-1-10.htm

Image 3: Youtube video screenshot of a storm drain clogged with plastic bags in Miami Beach. Obtained via: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQA-hxq6Qko

Image 4: Trash littering the Jimbaran beach on Bali. 2014. Taken by Killerturnip. Obtained via Flickr

Image 5: A sea turtle entangled in a discarded fishing net. 2012. Obtained via Wikimedia Commons

Image 6: A dead albatross chick with an exposed belly showing all the plastic garbage it has ingested. Taken by Claire Fackler, 2014. Obtained via Wikimedia Commons