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UNEP and NOAA studies highlight costs of marine debris

A large and unquantifiable amount of plastic waste enters the ocean from a number of sources including littering, poorly managed landfills, tourist activities and fisheries. Some of this material sinks to the ocean floor, while some floats and can travel over great distances on ocean currents - polluting shorelines and accumulating in massive mid-ocean gyres.

There have been many reliable reports of environmental damage due to plastic waste: mortality or illness when ingested by sea creatures such as turtles, entanglement of animals such as dolphins and whales, damage to critical habitats such as coral reefs, chemical contamination and spread of invasive species. While types of environmental damage from marine debris are well documented, little is still known about its economic implications.

Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a new economic study about the impacts of marine debris on the state of California’s beaches.  The study called "Assessing the Economic Benefits of Reductions in Marine Debris: A Pilot Study of Beach Recreation in Orange County, California" shows that marine debris can cost residents millions of dollars, and concludes that given the enormous popularity of beach recreation throughout the United States, the magnitude of recreational losses associated with marine debris has the potential to be substantial.

The NOAA study analyses how marine debris influences people’s decisions to go to the beach and what it may cost them to choose to go to beaches with less pollution.  Many California residents are avoiding dirty and littered local beaches in favor of cleaner beaches that are often farther away and may cost more to reach. During the three months of the summer, the report shows that residents can save up to US$32 million dollars by reducing the amount of marine debris present on the beaches by 25 percent.

This new study was released just one month after the UNEP’s “Valuing Plastics” report, another study that places costs on impacts from marine debris and plastic pollution.  UNEP’s report analyzes the costs companies would incur if the damage caused by waste plastic was included in their accounting and makes the business case for managing and disclosing plastic use in the consumer goods industry. One of the main findings of the report is that marine pollution is the largest downstream impact, costing US$13 billion, and notes that the figure is likely a significant underestimate. It also finds that consumer goods companies can save US$4 billion each year through good management of plastic, such as recycling, and that there is potential for greater savings.

“Valuing Plastics” was supported by the Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML), a global multistakeholder partnership under the auspice of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA). UNEP is hosting the secretariat of the GPA.

These two studies complement each other by highlighting the huge economic costs associated with marine litter, particularly in the form of marine plastic pollution. Where UNEP’s “Valuing Plastics” report examines financial impacts of marine plastic pollution on businesses and upstream and downstream associated environmental costs, the new NOAA report provides another concrete example of downstream economic impacts, especially upon beach and coastal communities in California.

By placing a financial value on the impacts of marine pollution and plastic waste, we can further integrate effective environmental management, highlight the potential for savings by companies and society, and further solutions that build the case for proactive sustainability improvements by businesses and communities to decrease sources of and impacts from marine litter.

Further Resources:

- Download NOAA's "Assessing the Economic Benefits of Reductions in Marine Debris: A Pilot Study of Beach Recreation in Orange County, California" study by clicking here.

- Download UNEP's “Valuing Plastics” report by clicking here .