Marine plastics set to inflict $1 trillion blow to economy

·Environment Editor
·4-min read
  • Plastic in our oceans could cost economy $1 trillion by 2050

  • Issue currently costs $30 billion a year

  • Tourism most heavily hit industry

Marine plastic could cost the world over a trillion dollars by 2050 if pollution predictions eventuate, a new report warns.

Estimates suggest plastic production will triple over the next thirty years, and that could see economic damage by 2030 swell to US $229 billion ($322 billion).

By 2050 the cost will likely reach US $731 billion ($1.026 trillion).

Marine plastics could cost the global economy $1 trillion by 2050, with tourism the most affected industry. Source: Getty / File Image.
Marine plastics could cost the global economy $1 trillion by 2050, with tourism the most affected industry. Source: Getty / File Image.

Even if current plastic usage levels plateau, the hit to the global hip pocket comes in at US $434 billion ($610 billion) by 2050.

Research published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin examined the impact of the world's inaction to tackle the plastic crisis.

Calling the current projections “unacceptable”, it urges business, government and community to take action to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics.

One of the report’s authors marine economist Professor Alistair McIlgorm from the University of Wollongong told Yahoo News that it’s important to start combating the issue now.

“We know that the problem is happening, we know that humans are going to consume more plastic in the future, and the rate of consumption is probably going to increase,” he said.

“It's actually a rational proposition at the moment to start addressing marine litter levels.”

Does Australia have a marine plastics problem?

Professor McIlgorm said Australia is underrepresented when it comes to the issue of marine plastics because of its low population, but its large coastline means the issue is still a costly problem.

Plastic pollution around Australia’s northern coastline is heavily impacted by marine debris and litter which migrates down from neighbouring nations.

Left - a shirtless man holding rubbish on a Thai beach. Right - A worker cleaning up rubbish on the shore in Jakata.
Developing nations like Thailand (left) and Indonesia (right) are struggling to effectively combat the issue of marine plastics. Source: Reuters / File Images

Looking south to the country's major population centres, there is a clear correlation between the size of the municipality and littered plastic waste.

Which industries are being most affected by plastic pollution?

Globally, the industries most impacted by the problem are fishing (13.6 per cent), shipping (27.2 per cent) and tourism (59.2 per cent).

While some Australian councils regularly comb the beaches using tractors with attached raking devices to keep their beaches looking attractive, this can be expensive.

“The hidden cost will be to the appeal of tourists not wanting to come to different places if they believe that the debris levels are somewhat unacceptable,” Professor McIlgorm warns.

What can be done to mitigate the impact of plastics in our oceans?

In 2020, the global cost of marine plastics is estimated to have been US $21.3 billion ($30 billion).

Developed countries are failing to effectively combat the issue, but it's developing nations that “really struggle” to stem the flow of plastics into waterways.

“In those countries, the costs are extremely real to human health, the environment and to the economies,” Professor McIlgorm said.

Making producers responsible for the plastic they create has been floated as one way to tackle the issue.

Known as extended producer responsibility, these systems are similar to container recycling schemes, which are used in a number of Australian states.

Untouched tourist spots are likely to become less popular due to plastic litter. Source: Steven Gnam / UOW
Untouched tourist spots are likely to become less popular due to plastic litter. Source: Steven Gnam / UOW

Professor McIlgorm believes that consumers also need to take responsibility for the plastic they purchase.

“I think consumers have got to realise too, that we really are getting a lot of benefit from plastic as it's been a very cheap thing, but it has hidden costs,” he said.

“It costs us all money in our rates to to bury it, or incinerate it, or recycle it.

“So, it’s one of the biggest issues facing us all globally. We have this product that we know doesn't really break down that well, and we really need to come up with better ways to deal with it at the end of its life.”

In February, the United Nations Environmental Assembly will meet to begin discussing a binding global agreement to tackle the issue.

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