Australian researchers have put a jaw-dropping price tag on the colossal amount of rubbish floating in the world’s oceans.
But the estimated yearly costs of $30 billion, currently being borne by marine-based industries worldwide, could soon seem like small change.
Annual rubbish-related costs for sectors including marine tourism, fishing and shipping, could hit $611 billion by 2050 without urgent, global action to reduce plastic pollution.
The figure could balloon further, to $1 trillion a year, if projections that plastic production will triple by then eventuate.
The sobering estimates are the work Australian researchers commissioned to quantify the problem by the APEC Ocean and Fisheries Working Group, which is working to address the marine debris crisis.
They come ahead of the UN Environment Assembly, due to begin in Nairobi in February, when Australia and other nations will consider whether to pursue a binding global agreement to reduce plastic pollution.
Professor Alistair McIlgorm, from the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security at the University of Wollongong, co-authored the new report on marine economy losses.
He is hoping nations will agree in Nairobi to pursue a plastics pact, given the material accounts for 80 per cent of marine debris worldwide.
Then there’s what’s happening in terrestrial environments, which almost certainly dwarfs the ocean’s rubbish crisis.
A discreet figure on that is still a work in progress but earlier this year the conservation group WWF and consultancy firm Dalberg made an estimate.
They calculated the lifetime cost of plastic produced globally in a single year (the study relied on data from 2019) was about $5 trillion.
The cost met by Australia was put at $17 billion when damage to the economy and threats to wildlife were taken into account.
Professor McIlgorm, a marine economist, says the world has never really had a plan to deal with the billions of tonnes of plastic that have been produced since the 1950s.
“We have huge fundamental questions that’ no one is really asking,” he said.
“We’re generating this thing called plastic that’s so useful it’s everywhere. But we’ve never really got our heads around what we should do with it, what its end use is.”
Right now there are only two options.
“We either have to bury it, or burn it. That’s it,” Professor McIlgorm said.
“We can recycle it but it’s not aluminium, which can be recycled 100 times. Plastic can be recycled twice, three times at most, and that’s only one type of plastic.”
Professor McIlgorm and environmental campaigners worldwide will be hoping for strong consensus at the UN Environment Assembly on resolutions to cut plastic pollution and address the problem at all stages of the plastic life-cycle.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley has already backed calls for a new global agreement on marine plastic pollution, while noting the Pacific region’s unified call for action.
In September, she referenced Australia’s ban on waste plastic exports and its national plastics plan as evidence of the lead role the country is taking in addressing the negative effects of plastics.
But a report in November revealed Australia has much work left to do.
A progress report by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation revealed the country is failing to meet its plastic reduction targets.
Only 16 per cent of plastic was recovered from the waste stream last year, nowhere near the target Australia has set for 70 per cent of plastic packaging to be recycled or composted by 2025.
The report by Professor McIlgorm and colleagues Karen Raubenheimer, Daniel McIlgorm and Rachel Nichols was published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.
* The report’s cost estimates were given in US dollars and have been converted to Australian dollars in this article.