The Economics of Marine Plastic Pollution: What are the Benefits of International Cooperation?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: University of Aberdeen Business School


In its recently-announced 25 year environmental plan, the UK government highlights the pollution of the world's oceans by plastics as a key environmental problem in need of urgent action. As the plan notes, "The UK is committed to leading efforts to protect the marine environment. To tackle marine pollution, we will pursue a sustainable, international and transboundary approach [...]" (p.92). Scientific evidence on the environmental impacts of plastics in the world's oceans and coastlines has recently emerged, confirming the severity and global reach of this problem. Moreover, recent studies have made first attempts to quantify how much plastic is flowing into marine waters, where this comes from, and its transport and fate. Environmental impacts include those on marine life (such as sea birds, turtles, and marine mammals); marine plastics lead to a loss of human well-being through these effects, as well as through pollution of coastlines/beaches and through health effects from plastics accumulating in the food chain. However, emissions of plastics into the seas and oceans appear to be rising over time. Effective solutions to tackling this growing problem will require cooperation between nations, since marine plastics have many of the characteristics of a global "public bad" - emissions from any one country have impacts on citizens of other countries, and the national waters and coastlines of other countries. Since most actions to reduce emissions are costly, individual countries have an incentive to "free ride" on the pollution-reduction efforts of others, leading to problems of a lack of international cooperation on pollution reduction. As the UK government's 25 year plan states (p.92): "Tackling marine litter requires coordinated global and regional strategies."

This inter-disciplinary project focusses on this international cooperation problem. Based on a case study of the North Atlantic nations, the main aim of the project is to develop and test a framework for identifying the benefits of international cooperation in reducing marine plastic pollution. The project has 5 objectives:

1. To review and summarise scientific data on the ecological impacts of marine plastics on marine life;
2. To quantify the way in which plastics are transported across the North Atlantic, so as to show the impacts of emissions from any one country on levels of plastic in international waters and on the coastal waters of other North Atlantic countries (along with current uncertainty over the size of these transfer effects);
3. To develop estimates of the economic damage costs of marine plastics for 8 North Atlantic countries. This will be accomplished using a mix of original stated preference studies in the UK and US, along with benefits transfer methods;
4. For each of these countries, to develop estimates of the (marginal) costs of reducing plastic "emissions" to the sea, including policy options related to changing consumer behaviour over purchase decisions and plastics packaging; and those related to changes in waste handling and processing systems;
5. Using a game theoretical framework, to quantify the net benefits to each country of different levels of actions to reduce marine plastic pollution, and to quantify the net benefits of cooperation compared to non-cooperative actions.

We anticipate that the project will produce results of direct interest to UK policymakers and other stakeholders in terms of the economic costs of marine plastic pollution, the costs of actions to reduce marine plastic, and the benefits of greater international cooperation. Moreover, the framework we will develop is designed to be transferable to other regional settings for marine plastic pollution (such as the South China Sea) and to other, comparable international pollution control problems. The inter-disciplinary team assembled to undertake this project includes economists and marine scientists with a track record of working together successfully.

Planned Impact

Our research will contribute to the knowledge base both locally and globally, in both academic and applied terms. Key outcomes and benefits of this research include: (1) novel methodological and conceptual developments in the academic fields of environmental economics and applied game theory, focused on marine and coastal plastic pollution but with lessons that can be directly transferred to other transboundary environmental problems of a global/regional scale; (2) provision of data to support the development of a green circular economy, through better informed management and value transfer, including country and regional level values for marine plastics damage and reduction costs, and through new knowledge on how to motivate consumers to reduce their generation of plastic wastes through changes in consumption behaviour; (3) outputs that will directly increase awareness of the severe economic damages resulting from plastic pollution in the marine and coastal environment, and also aid solutions through the exploration of the costs of reducing marine plastic pollution; (4) additional, explicit outputs on the benefits of greater international cooperation, and how best to enhance prospects for such cooperative agreements to be put in place and be effective. The overall goal of the project is to provide concrete, reliable and actionable guidance, and data that can inform international actions to address the worldwide problem of marine plastic pollution.

These prospective outcomes will have direct and beneficial impacts on a number of beneficiaries, including:

a) National environmental managers (such as Defra, MMO, and Marine Scotland in the UK; NOAA [including the National Marine Fisheries Service] and EPA in the US) will directly profit from improved marine plastics data further enabling the improved management of this high profile pollutant, including consideration of ecological and human impacts, movements, damage costs, and costs of mitigation.

b) Local and regional environmental managers in the US and UK such as county, city and town councils (as well as cross-jurisdictional agencies) will be able to use both the damage cost data and reduction costs information to inform the better management of plastics within their remits, in terms of production, clean-up, and recycling.

c) Environmental managers and NGOs (such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust and SEPA; and the Nature Conservancy in the US) will benefit from improvements in the estimates of the costs and benefits of reducing marine plastics pollution in each case study country, as well as information on the types of international collaboration that can be promoted to ameliorate marine plastics pollution.

d) National bodies such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and Zero Waste Scotland will gain insights into possible new measures which can be taken to change consumers' purchasing decisions to reduce the volume of plastics waste generated.

e) The wider society in each of our case study counties will benefit from the project results as they will help to ensure that the public's valuation of marine plastics is represented in future management and policy decisions. These insights will thus be relevant to the work of many environmental NGOs, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and county wildlife trusts in the UK.

f) International initiatives including The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) and Natural Capital Initiatives (NCI) and Projects (NCP) in the UK, US and across the world will be informed by the methodology and values. There is a well-documented need for primary valuation research such as this, particularly in the marine and coastal sector, to support such initiatives. Moreover, we will demonstrate the benefits of enhanced international cooperation in marine plastics to these influential bodies.


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