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Choosing Economic Instruments

Economic instruments to tackle marine litter should be designed so as to deliver three objectives:

1. Minimize production of marine litter.

2. To minimize the harm caused by marine litter.

3. To avoid unintended consequences from the application of the instrument.

Achieving all of these objectives is a challenge. This chapter has provided examples of the use of economic instruments to reduce different types of waste that contribute to marine litter or to target specific sources of such waste. However, there is a difference between reducing waste arisings and managing disposal, which is the focus of economic instruments currently applied to waste, and addressing the harm caused by marine litter.

Reducing the quantity of marine litter may depend on targeting key sources. For example, where waste enters the environment affects its ability to contribute to marine litter. A plastic bag dropped from a ship is more likely to become marine litter than one dropped on coastal land which is, in turn, more likely to become marine litter than one dropped 100 km inland.

Targeting the economic instruments to address marine litter that causes the most harm is particularly problematic. Marine litter causes different types of impacts and the harm arising from these varies—ghost fishing, suffocation by plastic bags, introduction of toxic substances—such impacts may be unique to some types of waste or focused around particular types of waste. In contrast, the impact of marine litter on tourism due to the presence of litter on beaches is largely a factor of its total quantity (although some types of waste are particularly unpleasant or unsanitary).

In addressing marine litter, economic instruments can be used to reduce the impacts of such litter in a variety of ways. Such instruments may:

• Incentivize industries to use less plastic (packaging) either through economic disincentives/subsidies (internalizing external cost);

• Target waste arisings generally—such as with a landfill tax;

• Target specific types of waste—such as plastic bags;

• Target sources of waste most problematic for marine litter—such as shipping;

• Target individual types of marine litter—such as to reduce ghost fishing;

• Pay for the collection of litter;

• Target the toxicity of litter;

• Discourage polluting behavior.

Economic instruments have been adopted for some of these types of waste/litter. However, the toxicity of waste/litter is usually addressed through regulation controlling the quality of products or materials. The use of a regulatory approach on this issue in Europe, for example, is strongly linked to the single EU market. However, differential taxes or charges for products with materials that would have different toxicities in water are theoretically possible.

All instruments can have unintended consequences, that is impacts other than those for which the instrument is designed. The most obvious are costs to businesses, administrations or individuals. Economic instruments may have such costs—charges are an obvious cost, but administrations may incur costs to administer an instrument. However, where charges or taxes are levied these can be used to pay for their administration or contribute in other ways (e.g. funding awareness raising to ensure compliance, monitoring of instrument efficiency).

The choice of economic instrument also needs to consider the acceptance of the instrument by those affected. An instrument that results in additional costs (a tax, charge, etc.) may be resisted by some stakeholders. For example, 'pay-asyou-throw' schemes are strongly opposed by some communities, but not others. However, those same communities may welcome a reward scheme to encourage 'good' behavior funded by local taxes (yet this still results in costs to people). Acceptance may change over time: for example, where plastic bag taxes were introduced early resistance has largely disappeared as communities have seen the benefits of the schemes.

Finally, it is worth noting that there is discussion on the use of economic instruments to manage litter on beaches, i.e. the financing of its removal. For example, Birdir et al. (2013) undertook a willingness-to-pay study of beach litter in Turkey. Their conclusions suggested local taxes and collection boxes as means to fund beach cleanups. However, while it is appropriate to consider how such services are funded, these are not economic instruments to tackle the problem at source.


Marine litter is a complex problem to address, which exerts significant economic costs, often borne not by the polluter but by coastal and marine industries such as fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, etc. (some of which also contribute significantly to marine litter). Economic instruments have a potentially important role to play in addressing marine litter, with initiatives in place in several countries proving that they can lead to significant reductions in waste entering the environment (ten Brink et al. 2009).

The development of effective and efficient instruments requires a strong link between the behavior change driven by the instrument and the harm caused by marine litter. However, there are several areas where there is a lack of sufficient information to make this link. At the heart of this is the problem of understanding the harm caused by marine litter. The harm caused by some forms of litter is known, however, there are large gaps in this understanding.

While the presence of litter in the marine environment and even its ingestion, etc., in species is documented, it is not clear what impact it is having on critical populations of marine organisms or indeed species higher up the food chain (including humans). Further, while some specific types of litter are identified as having some impacts (discarded nets, plastic bags, etc.), the impacts of other types of litter are currently poorly understood, which is most notable with the debate on microand nanoplastics. In relation to socio-economic impacts, impacts on tourism from beach litter are documented, but a quantitative link between the impact and levels of litter is poorly understood (Ballance et al. 2000).

These links between types, quantities and sources of marine litter and their varied impacts are important to understand if targeted economic instruments are to be developed. Otherwise an instrument may lead to a reduction in litter, but with a limited reduction in impact.

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