Economics 2

Collective Action Problems


Situations in which people fail to cooperate even though it would be in their (collective) interest to do so, are collective action problems. In this module we will explore why plastic pollution is a collective action problem and why the issue has not been resolved, even though it is in our best interest to do so. We will discuss the polluter pays principle as a possible solution to deal with plastic waste. Finally, we will discuss two examples of individuals who are taking responsibility and working to solve plastic pollution.


KEY CONCEPTS: collective action problem, tragedy of the commons, typology of goods, free riding, common pool resources, polluter pays principle



  • Introduction

  • Two parts of collective action problems

    • Tragedy of the commons

    • Free riding

  • How to deal with collective action problems?

  • Polluter pays principle

    • Deposit refund schemes

    • Plastic bag tax

  • Who owns the ocean?

    • Garbage patches in international waters

    • Common pool resource management

  • Inspiring individuals

Learning outcomes

At the end of this module students can:

  • Describe the concept and theory of collective action problems, and explain how this applies to plastic pollution

  • Describe the four types of goods, and explain what common pool resources are and why no one takes responsibility to govern them.

  • Discuss how the ocean complicates the plastic pollution problem by crossing boundaries and demanding intergovernmental management.

  • Explain how the polluter pays principle may help in solving plastic pollution and similar collective action problems.