The Price of Plastic
A few years back we put a price on biodiversity and we called it Natural Capital, now new research published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin has put a price on plastic, and I’m calling it disaster.
Building on previous work, researchers from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the University of Surrey, the University of Stirling and the Arctic University of Norway have identified a number of key areas affecting society that are directly impacted by plastics in the marine ecosystem. These include things like fisheries, aquaculture, the quality of coastal environment and recreational activities – all of which are negatively affected by plastic in marine ecosystems.
An estimated 8 billion tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean every year and now, following the latest research, scientists estimate that over the next few years we’ll see a 1-5% decline in the “services” provided by marine ecosystems which in turn will cause an annual loss of £400-£2,000 billion in the value of benefits derived from the marine ecosystem globally. In real terms this is what will be lost in the form of fish stocks for food, an imbalance in the human food chain, lost in the number of tourists visiting locations like the Great Barrier Reef or the Seychelles which rely on people visiting them to feel something and take action. There will be less people visiting coastal towns, such as those in the UK, this means businesses will experience drops in sales and for many small tourist operations this can result in closing down. The effects are widespread and part of a long chain of links that run to the heart of how we function as humans – food, shelter, business.
As sobering as it is to read this research on the true cost of plastic, it will help us inform decisions made on a large scale about how to deal with the problem. For example, we may now consider the costs of recycling more bearable vs. the money lost by the destruction of the marine environment; we may spend more on innovating new products that avoid the use of plastic; we may even persuade ALL supermarkets to get rid of the plastic packaging of fruit and veg… maybe.
Of all the plastic that enters the ocean, we can only see about 1% of it. This is particularly damaging for some of the more remote locations in the ocean. Take the Galapagos Islands for example, they are home to some of the most unique, rare and now endangered species on Earth. They hold a key to the history of biodiversity and the future of many species of flora and fauna, yet their habitat continues to be encroached by a wave of plastic pollution. How devastating this would be to have an ignorant human problem wipe out species who have existed in such a small area for hundreds of years?
Up until now we’ve seen the devastation of beaches, corals and other marine species from their exposure to our plastic waste and that hasn’t been enough to make any kind of change – particularly on a larger scale within business and government. Now we have a chance to quantify the intangible effects as well as the tangible, looking into the health of society as well as the environment and looking at those alongside the enormous associated costs might just cinch it.
Sadly, putting a price on something is often the only way people will listen – when their pockets and pensions are at risk…