The world’s oceans are being poisoned. Some of the plastic litter is visible, such as in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There, plastics and other debris are trapped by the “gyres” or currents of the North Pacific. Some plastics float while others sink.
Even worse are the plastic particles that are not visible. Much of the plastic tossed into the ocean breaks down into molecules, both of the plastic material and also of toxic chemicals. The particles are eaten by fish and other animals. The plastics then enter the food chain for fish, birds, turtles – and human beings. Worse yet, the plastic molecules absorb pollutants, so the food chain gets poisoned. The pollutants become ever more concentrated as they go up the food chain of contaminated animals. Pollution from eating fish becomes a source of diseases such as cancer.
The oceanic pollution comes from both ships and land sources. Boats and ships have long been using the ocean as a dump. Land sources come from untreated trash. Even when sewage is normally treated, during big rains some systems cannot process the trash, and the plastics are spewed into the ocean.
Implementing an international oceanic treaty, since 1989 the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (MARPOL) prohibits U.S. vessels or land-based activities from dumping plastics and other trash materials into the ocean. The law is enforced by the Coast Guard, but there is still much evasion.
A complete ban on plastics is now impossible, since plastics have become essential in global production and consumption. It is sufficient to prevent plastics from continuing to poison the world’s bodies of water.
Manufacturers are now producing photodegradable plastics that break down in sunlight. But it is not enough to break up the plastics – they need to be rendered harmless. Biodegradable plastics made from starch are better, as they let microbes eat up the plastic.
Beach cleanups help reduce the plastics problem, and there are also people cleaning up the plastics in the oceans. Environmentally conscious consumers are now avoiding plastic bags, or recycling them, which is a good start, but an effective solution requires legal remedies.
The two policy options to limit the plastics dumping are 1) command and control regulations; and 2) pollution charges. Some local governments are implementing regulations banning plastic bags and styrofoam containers. Such restrictions and commands are not effective unless done on a large scale, and that encounters resistance from the public. Severe regulations smack of the nanny state, of big government micro-managing individual choice
A better policy is to eliminate pollution through full-cost market prices. The problem is that consumers are not paying the social cost of their purchased products. They pay the cost of the inputs, but not the pollution cost. In effect, consumers are subsidized when they don’t pay the full cost. A pollution charge should be applied, equal to the social cost of the actual and potential pollution associated with the product. Some cities have implemented this by charging a few cents for the use of a plastic bag. Pollution charges should be combined with education about why the tax or fee or charge is being levied.
Reducing pollution via the price system is better than via regulations, because this allows consumers as well as producers to respond according to their own costs and benefits. Some people may get great benefit from using plastic bags, while others have little loss from using cloth bags that can be cleaned and used again. If one brings one’s own plastic bag, there would be no charge.
There should also be much stronger enforcement of laws prohibiting dumping. The fine should equal the amount of damage divided by the probability of catching the culprit. For example, if the social cost of tossing a bag is $1, and the probability of getting caught is one percent, then the fine should be $100.
Enforcement of pollution laws is now much more feasible with the use of drone aircraft. Drones can be sent above ships and fishing boats to photograph dumping. State laws should also impose fines on cities with inadequate sewage treatment.
There needs to be a global environmental treaty that prevents subsidies to pollution with charges for all dumping into waters, soils, and the air. Unfortunately, what is being implemented instead are “cap and trade” pseudo-markets that invite financial manipulation, subsidize areas and firms that sell credits, and end up with permit prices that don’t reflect the social costs. “Green” fees or charges would bring revenue to governments that could be used to reduce taxes on goods and wages – a “green tax shift” that would help both the economy and the environment.
Alas, politicians today are not even discussing the death of the oceans. The focus is short term – on economic recovery. Voters are confronted by parties providing the bad alternatives of greater budget deficits or higher taxes on investment and production. The effective solution for both the economy and the environment is an “optimality tax shift,” replacing all current taxes with payments that remove the two big implicit toxic subsidies – to pollution and to land value. The only effective way to have a sustainable economy and planet is public revenue from pollution and land value. That is not a opinion, but the plain truth.
[Editor's note: this essay first appeared on Dr. Foldvary's blog, the Foldvarium, on June 19 2012]