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Marine plastic has a cost to humans too

28 March 2019

Following hot on the heels of the recognition that plastics entering the ocean have an impact on its marine life, scientists have now revealed, for the first time, that plastic floating in the sea is costing human society hundreds if not thousands of billions of dollars every year in damaged and lost resources, with knock on effects for our health and wellbeing. A Plymouth Marine Laboratory-led study to investigate the effects of marine plastic pollution on the goods and services the marine environment provides to society has been published in Marine Pollution Bulletin this week.
Plastic rubbish on a beach

The research reveals that marine plastic pollution has significant negative impacts not only upon the plants and animals living in the ocean, but also upon the benefits and the value of the provisions we gain from the sea, which ultimately has implications for human health and wellbeing.

Scientific research into the effect of plastic on the ecology of the ocean has increased rapidly in recent years, and its impacts have gained wide recognition among policy makers and the wider public, most recently thanks to Sir David Attenborough’s BBC documentary series, Blue Planet 2, but the impacts of plastic pollution on the goods and services provided by the marine environment, known as marine ecosystem services, are far less well known. Marine ecosystem services comprehensively contribute to human health and wellbeing, through providing food, the oxygen we breathe and by regulating our climate and weather; we use the ocean for recreation, leisure and simply, but importantly, for a sense of wellbeing. We interfere with the provision of these goods and services at our peril, if we alter or reduce them, we endanger the welfare of human societies, especially in coastal communities around the world.

To fill in this important knowledge gap, a team of multidisciplinary scientists, led by Plymouth Marine Laboratory and in collaboration with scientists at the Universities of Stirling and Surrey in the UK, and the Arctic University of Norway, undertook an analysis of marine plastic research to increase understanding of the social and economic impact of marine plastic. 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.

By firstly synthesising global ecological impacts of plastics and then translating that into ecosystem services impacts, this study estimates that there will be a 1-5% decline in marine ecosystem service delivery. That may not sound much but it equates to an annual loss of $500-$2,500 billion in the value of benefits derived from marine ecosystem services, globally. To make this staggering sum even more tangible, the researchers also considered it in terms of cost per tonne of marine plastic; equating to an annual cost in terms of reduced environmental value of between $3,300 and $33,000 per tonne of marine plastic (based on 2011 values).

The three most high value/high risk ecosystem service impacts were identified as: provision of fisheries, aquaculture and materials for agricultural use; heritage, culture and emotional importance, and experiential recreation and tourism. Every analysis demonstrated negative impacts on the key ecological groups investigated, from charismatic sea mammals, to birds to the tiny animals of the zooplankton which feed and power layers of marine life above them in food webs. Only two groups showed a positive benefit from marine plastics: bacteria and algae appeared to benefit, but that in itself is not necessarily a good thing. Bacteria and algae exploit plastics to colonize their surfaces, a phenomenon that is also likely to have a widespread negative effect. As opposed to natural substrates that tend to degrade or sink relatively quickly, plastics are highly attractive to many opportunistic species and can remain in the upper ocean for long periods, travelling 1000s of miles, potentially transporting these organisms around the globe, increasing their geographical range, but increasing the risk of spreading invasive species and diseases around the world.

Dr Nicola Beaumont, lead author and Environmental Economist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, commented: “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. 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. 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. 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.” 

Related information

The paper ‘Global ecological, social and economic impacts of marine plastic’ is published this week in Marine Pollution Bulletin.

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