Plastic floating in the sea is costing human society “hundreds if not thousands of billions of dollars” every year, including loss of tourism revenue and reduced productivity. The “perceived risk” of the contamination of seafood with microplastic may also be detrimental to the seafood industry, whilst the presence of marine litter can impact physical and mental health.

That’s according to experts at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, who have led research showing that the proliferation of marine plastic has “clear costs to the economy and human wellbeing, particularly relating to the provision of sustainable and safe fisheries and aquaculture, recreation, and heritage values”.

The team also had a “first stab” at putting a price on plastic pollution: it’s about $3,300 and $33,000 (£2,500 and £25,300) per tonne of marine plastic, but that is likely to be an underestimate of the real costs to human society.

“We should be concerned about ecological impacts, we should equally be worried about the economic and societal consequences which relate directly to our own health and wellbeing,” said Nicola Beaumont, lead author and environmental economist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Indeed, scientific research into the effect of plastic on the ecology of the ocean has increased rapidly in recent years, but the impacts of plastic pollution on the goods and services provided by the marine environment – known as marine ecosystem services – are less well known.

Marine ecosystem services comprehensively contribute to human health and wellbeing, through providing food and oxygen, as well as by regulating the climate and weather. The oceans are also used for recreation, leisure and simply, but importantly, for a sense of wellbeing. “We interfere with the provision of these goods and services at our peril,” the researchers said, and “if we alter or reduce them, we endanger the welfare of human societies, especially in coastal communities around the world.”

The Plymouth team, in collaboration with scientists at the Universities of Stirling and Surrey in the UK, and the Arctic University of Norway, took the global ecological impacts of plastics and translated them into ecosystem services impacts. They estimated that the disruption caused by plastics could result in a 1-5% decline in marine ecosystem service delivery. “That may not sound much but it equates to an annual loss of $500-$2,500 billion (£380-£1,900 billion) in the value of benefits derived from marine ecosystem services, globally,” they noted.

To put this into context, the researchers also calculated that the annual cost of reduced environmental value is between $3,300 and $33,000 per tonne of marine plastic.

The three most high value/high risk ecosystem service impacts are: provision of fisheries, aquaculture and materials for agricultural use; heritage, culture and emotional importance; and experiential recreation and tourism.

Beaumont added: “Our calculations are a first stab at ‘putting a price on plastic’; we know we have to do more research to refine them, but we are convinced that already they are an underestimate of the real costs to global human society.”