Reflecting on the Economic Impact of Marine Plastic Pollution on Our Tourism Industry for Tourism Month

The link between tourism and plastic pollution is an important and strategic one for us to explore. In celebration of Tourism Month this September, Sustainable Seas Trust is partnering with Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality: Economic Development, Tourism and Agriculture Directorate to host an interactive workshop exploring how municipalities can be supported to better manage plastic packaging waste, thereby decreasing litter, and ensuring a competitive tourism destination.


The True Cost of Plastic Pollution

The cost of plastic pollution is enormous and growing, affecting not only human health and the environment but also numerous economic sectors that rely on marine and coastal environments to generate income.

From fishing to agriculture, tourism to real-estate, the economic impact of plastic pollution is widespread. We have only recently begun to understand the economic cost of marine plastic pollution. However, estimates of the global annual loss are between US$ 500 billion – US$ 2.5 trillion per annum.

Specifically, discarded litter and marine pollution brought in by the tide or rivers detracts from the aesthetic beauty of our coastline. We know that cleanliness is the most important factor in both local and foreign visitors deciding which beach to visit. A well-known study in Cape Town found that a drop in cleanliness on local beaches is associated with a 97% loss of economic value derived from the beaches, and litter densities of more than 10 large items, like bottles, shopping bags and food containers, per metre of beach can deter 40% of foreign tourists and 60% of domestic tourists from returning to Cape Town. This loss is equated to billions of rands each year to the local economy.

Tourism is a sector particularly impacted by pollution, as the desirability of tourism destinations is influenced by factors such as the quality of the environment, both natural and man-made.


The Relationship of Tourism with the Environment

The relationship between tourism and the environment is complex as it involves many activities that can have adverse environmental effects. Some of these impacts are linked with the construction of general infrastructure such as roads and airports, and of tourism facilities, including resorts, hotels, restaurants, shops, golf courses and marinas. The negative impacts of tourism development can gradually destroy environmental resources on which it depends.

On the other hand, tourism has the potential to create beneficial effects on the environment by contributing to environmental protection and conservation. It is a way to raise awareness of environmental values and it can serve as a tool to finance protection of natural areas and increase their economic importance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also introduced new waste streams into the environment and has seen the increased use of single-use plastics among consumers and businesses alike. The call to build back better and sustainably is growing. Tourism has, arguably, been the sector most impacted by the global pandemic. As destinations start to reopen, the need to support this sector with appropriate resources and accurate information is greater than ever.


The Leading Role of Municipalities in Responsible Waste Management

In many countries, the management of municipal solid waste, including packaging waste, is the responsibility of the state, and is usually carried out at municipal level. The packaging waste is either directly collected by the relevant state authority or by private companies working on the state’s behalf. The costs of such systems are borne by the local authorities and/or national government, with private citizens contributing financially through their municipal solid waste fees or taxes.

Typically, local municipalities are responsible for waste collection from households and businesses, including providing readily accessible infrastructure. One of the key challenges for municipalities and local authorities is to ensure that all citizens are informed about the waste collection system and the fact that packaging and other recyclables will be collected separately. Local authorities are also the key point of contact for groups and institutions that can act as awareness multipliers for the rest of the population, such as nurseries, schools, universities, clubs and other organisations.

Under the National Environmental Management Waste Act (NEMWA), the primary responsibility for post-consumer and post-industrial waste remains with municipalities. As such, they are a key player in enabling increased collection and recycling. SST understands that municipalities have the power to amplify separation at source and, as a result, increase recycling.

Equally, given the valuable role that informal waste collectors currently play in the waste economy, SST believes it is essential that they are considered within the context of responsible waste management, in partnership with municipalities.


Responsible Consumerism

Sustainable waste management partly depends on changing consumers’ attitudes towards waste, and particularly on creating a sense of civic collective responsibility for it. Making sure people are informed about both the benefits of proper waste management and the adverse effects of failure to manage it effectively is key to promoting this change. Consumers must dispose of packaging correctly, ideally by separating the waste at source to ensure high-quality recycling.


Towards a Circular Economy for the Tourism Industry

Globally, this topic is gaining traction. Many stakeholders in the tourism industry understand the impact that pollution has on a destination’s attractiveness and have therefore been taking clear action against plastic pollution.

The goal of the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative is to bring the tourism sector together under a common vision to transition to a circular plastic economy and sustainability in the sector. The Global Tourism Plastics Initiative requires tourism organisations to make a set of concrete commitments by 2025, including eliminating problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and items and taking to move from single-use to re-use models or reusable alternative, amongst others.

As SST, we know that the local tourism industry is one of the major stakeholders in the marine environment and, through partnership, we can lead the way in revolutionising our use of plastic packaging.

Eco-tourism can no longer be a niche market. All tourism needs to be eco-tourism.



Ballance, A., Ryan, P.G., Turpie, J.K., 2000. How much is a clean beach worth? The impact of litter on beach users in the Cape Peninsula, South Africa. South African Journal of Science 96, 210–213. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283507743_plastic_and_other_artefacts_on_South_African_beaches_temporal_trends_in_abundance_and_composition

Beaumont, N.J., Aanesen, M., Austen, M.C., Börger, T., Clark, J.R., Cole, M., Hooper, T., Lindeque, P.K., Pascoe, C., Wyles, K.J., 2019. Global ecological, social and economic impacts of marine plastic. Marine Pollution Bulletin 142, 189–195. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2019.03.02

Ryan, P.G., Moloney, C., 1990. Plastic and other artefacts on South African beaches: temporal trends in abundance and composition. South African Journal of Science 86, 450–452. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279579359_How_much_is_a_clean_beach_worth_The_impact_of_litter_on_beach_users_in_the_Cape_Peninsula_South_Africa

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