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Plastic leakage into the ocean takes place in production, consumption and disposal.
The research project model is aimed at decision-makers: "It is designed as an inspirational support to help you identify the most important measures", says Fredrik Carlsson.
Photo: Naja Bertolt Jensen
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Mapping the path of plastics to reduce ocean emissions

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Taxes on plastic bags and bans on plastic straws – the attempts to reduce marine plastic pollution are both numerous and debated. But getting results is more about adapting the measures to each individual context, than about finding one solution that works everywhere, says Fredrik Carlsson, who works in a project where marine plastic pollution is tackled with both economics and natural science.

The floating plastic collection in the Pacific Ocean, "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch", have become a symbol of how our human use of plastic harms the marine environment. Here, the ocean currents collect enormous amounts of plastic debris from the surrounding coasts, boats and oil rigs.

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Porträtt av Fredrik Carlsson
Fredrik Carlsson

­“Compared to climate change and malaria, for example, ocean plastic pollution may be seen as a fairly small problem. There are a number of animals that’s harmed and the plastic mountain in the Pacific Ocean is of course disgusting, but to a large extent it is mainly an ethical issue. At the same time, there is a lot of interesting research on how plastic pollutants interact with each other, which shows that we know very little about the long-term effects of plastic emissions into the marine environment. From a precautionary perspective it is important to reduce them”, says Fredrik Carlsson, professor of economics at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg.

If we start pricing plastic waste management, there is a risk that people will start dumping it illegally instead.

In the research project Sustainable Management of Coastal Marine Resources (CMaR), he and other economists work together with natural scientists with a holistic approach to marine plastic pollution. The researchers have mapped how the plastic ends up in the sea during production, consumption and disposal, for example plastic resin pellets from the production stage leaking into the ocean, or illegal dumping of plastic waste.

”The overview is not written for economists but for people who deal with these issues, such as organizations, politicians and companies. With the help of our model, you as a decision-maker will be able to learn more about which instruments to use in a specific context. It is designed as an inspirational support to help you identify the most important measures while staying aware that everything is connected”, says Fredrik Carlsson.

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Illustration of the impact pathway

At each stage, different measures that may be implemented to reduce plastic emissions are evaluated, from regulation to price-based, rights-based and behavioral instruments.

”I think you have to see the whole picture. If you want an effect, it is clear that prohibition works, but you also have to keep in mind that there may be negative side effects. For example, if we start pricing plastic waste management, there is a risk that people will start dumping it illegally instead”.

Researchers from eight countries are participating in the project and the knowledge that is built up will be applied to the local conditions in each researcher’s country.

”In Costa Rica, we are now investigating what happens if you introduce biodegradable bags as an alternative to plastic bags. There we see that if you offer the bags for free, the use of plastic bags decreases – but the total use of bags increases. So it becomes clear that it is important to put a price on the bags. In Vietnam, we are investigating the effect of celebrities supporting an information campaign about reducing plastic use, aimed at students. There are lots of celebrities who support different causes, but really no studies on the effects. They find that if a celebrity supports the information campaign, plastic use among students is reduced by about 25 percent.

This is about getting a change of attitudes and for that, there is no quick fix.

Fredrik Carlsson's research focuses mainly on behavioral economics, where psychology and economics are linked to understand and influence people's actions, best known through the concept of “nudging” – small pushes that are supposed to nudge people into making certain choices.

”This is about getting a change of attitudes and for that, there is no quick fix. Things that work in one context do not work in another. Nudging should always be seen as a complement to standard policies – bans, taxes and the likes are also needed”, says Fredrik Carlsson.