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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Marine litter: from shelf to shore

Workshop on marine litter

Brussels, 8 November 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Marine litter is a big, big problem.

The UNEP has called it a "dire, vast and growing threat".

'Growing' is the important word here. It is not only big, it is not going away either.

And of course it is not only in the Pacific Ocean. It is a problem in all our seas and oceans. We have all heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is perhaps the biggest and the most infamous. But you can find the same plastic mess in the seas bordering Europe – and on Europe's coasts.

The effects are well documented. We know what plastic soup is. We know about marine life caught in nets and swallowing plastic pellets.

But what is less known is the impact of marine litter in other areas – how it can smother our sea beds, even very deep in the ocean, help spread poisons, allow alien species to 'migrate' across oceans, and the potential threat of chemicals released form plastics appearing in the food chain.

The impacts go far and wide. To the health, fishing and tourism sectors…it is like an enormous economic and environmental plastic tsunami. And WE made it!

It isn't just something that happens when a sailor throws a bottle into the sea. Some 80 percent of this stuff comes from the land and it looks like its here to stay – unless we do something about it.

Last September, I was in Bergen, at the OSPAR Ministerial meeting. Here, among other things, I was served a plastic breakfast – as a reminder of the problem. An intelligent and shocking reminder.

Marine litter was a constant theme during those two days. As was the need for stronger action. We came away – perhaps not with the agreed target for reducing marine litter we all would have liked – but with new ideas to develop proposals. And I must say that my ambition to speed up work in this area was renewed.

Of course, the European Union has already recognised the need to deal with the problem. It is a built-in part of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

This aims at reaching 'Good Environmental Status in 2020'. This means that by 2020 we want that marine litter does not hurt the coastal or marine environments.

I said that 80% of marine litter comes from land – this means looking further than the seas to see how we can solve the problem. It is a part of the broader problem of waste management.

We have to step up with our fight against waste and littering on land in the EU and internationally. My services are at the moment finalising a study on 'plastic waste in the environment', which they hope to publish by the end of this year.

This will gather and analyse information on plastics and plastic waste, how it is managed and what risks it poses to health and the environment. This is also part of our longer term view about how we can deal with marine litter.

Because in dealing with it, we have to go back to the source. Can you imagine the average European consumer looking at their weekly shop – at the plastic bags and the packaging – and seeing it as a marine hazard?

It may sound crazy, but that is exactly the awareness we have to build….from shelf to shore.

We have made some progress in the last few years with the recycling of packaging waste - in 2007, 16 Member States had met targets to recycle 55% of packaging. This is good, but we may have hit a wall in terms of going further. This is why in thinking about how to deal with this problem we are going to have to involve the companies who make and use the potential waste that ends up floating in our seas. The users, the makers and the people who have to deal with the problem – we have to involve and listen to them all. We are going to have to step up our commitments to re-use, re-cycle and reject the long history of wastage that has become an accepted but unfortunate and dangerous by-product of our 21st Century lifestyles.

What - then - are we here for today?

Not just to take stock. We need to discuss the impact of marine litter, but just talking won't be enough.

We have to focus on the solutions to reducing it. On land, on sea and in the minds of the public at large.

We don't have a lot of time - not least because the European Parliamentarians and the NGOs are getting restless. They/you want action from all of us. Europeans, our seas, our beaches, our ecosystems and our marine-dependent economies deserve nothing less.

So we need ideas. We need innovation from you – the people working in the area, in the regions and in the basins where marine litter is a real and persistent problem. And we need to strengthen research in this area to address the existing knowledge gaps.

The contribution of each and every one of you will be crucial to the success of our goals.

Let me make a commitment about my role here. Because it's very easy to start something, it's more difficult to see it through to the end – especially with a complex problem like marine litter. My promise is to use what comes out of today. To add it to the weight of opinion, idea and action that will – I am hoping – finally dam the tide of plastic litter.

Ladies and Gentlemen – I want to thank all of you in advance for your work today. And especially those of you who are bringing their expertise from far.

Perhaps those of you who have come from the US flew over the Atlantic Garbage Patch.

And perhaps one day we might see those same seas free of the blight of marine litter…. In fact "perhaps" and "might" are not good enough. We will and we have to!

I invite you to join us in implementing this ambitious undertaking, as a significant step towards improving our shared marine and coastal environment.

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