Exploring the Social Costs of Plastics: Global Review of Impacts and Economic Damages


The world currently has a unique opportunity to address pressing issues with plastic pollution in our global environment with an international legally binding agreement. It is imperative that we understand the impacts and harms – economic and social – of plastic pollution so the resulting treaty can rely upon robust scientific evidence. This project focuses on evaluating the social costs of plastics by assessing the state of science available on the impacts of plastic throughout its life cycle. This study aims to help the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability at Duke University in understanding the knowledge gaps that exist on impacts of plastic pollution and how these are being evaluated to account for economic externalities

In collaboration with a climate research grant team at the Nicholas Institute, we developed a system of categories for impacts of plastic throughout the entirety of its life cycle. Prior to this Master’s Project, the research team at the Nicholas Institute had consulted with experts of multiple disciplines on best approaches for the feasibility and utility of the social costs of plastics. Experts suggested a similar approach to the one used in the Social Cost of Carbon framework and the development of the system of categories (typology matrix for the purposes of this research). Using foundational literature, we developed definitions for the typologies and economic damages to then obtain search terms to be used in the literature review.

We developed a semi-systematic methodology for conducting a global literature review, which is informed by the foundational literature and a typology matrix of plastic’s impacts and economic damages previously mentioned. We complement the resulting framework with outcomes and comments from a multidisciplinary expert workshop held in January 2024 in Washington, D.C. We presented preliminary results of the literature review and received guidance from the experts at the workshop in identifying the gaps.

Based on 1,841 data points from 300 unique sources identified in our literature review, this report offers insights on the knowledge gaps in the plastics domain and a discussion on the state of science regarding the social costs of plastic. This study can help inform future research agendas and considerations to account for when measuring the social costs of plastics. The subsequent goal of this study is to inform policy discussions at a global scale with a preliminary understanding of the social cost of plastic with the available scientific data. Policies such as EPR schemes are discussed as solutions to this global plastic issue and they can be set more effectively by understanding the social costs. We delivered a database of impacts of plastic pollution at different geographical levels around the world.

Overall, this report aims to inform future researchers and policymakers on three key areas:

  1. The state of knowledge on the impacts of plastic pollution;
  2. Provide preliminary considerations for a framework on the social costs of plastics; and
  3. Initiate discussion amongst the multiple disciplines and policymakers working on the wide array of plastic impacts through its lifecycle.

The main results of our literature review point to a huge gap at the mid-stream stage of the plastics lifecycle, skewed distribution and valuation of impacts towards the marine environment and the need for consistency in units and methodologies in quantifying impacts and valuing damages from plastics. We highlight the importance of the latter in going forward on the plastic pollution research domain as a need for fostering collaboration and actions between multiple stakeholders and researchers. To the best of our knowledge, this is the most recent literature review investigating the current state of knowledge of the social costs of plastics.





Baker, Anne-Elisabeth, Jon Ekberg, Sadaf Sadruddin Sutaria and Juan Camilo Moreno Ramos (2024). Exploring the Social Costs of Plastics: Global Review of Impacts and Economic Damages. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/30598.

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