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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Let's keep the Mediterranean litter-free

Joint plastic MED event with Commissioner Damanaki on the protection of the Mediterranean Sea

Athens, 8 April 2011

I am very happy to be able to speak about marine litter today. It is a topic which really concerns me.

Marine litter is a complex issue and it is a battle nobody can win alone. This is why I am pleased that Maria has accepted to join me in this huge undertaking.

Marine litter started to attract media attention at the end of the 1990s when Charles Moore, an American oceanographer, discovered a new 'ocean' in the middle of the Pacific. He said, to quote: "Every time I came on deck to survey the horizon, I saw a soap bottle or a bottle cap. I was in the middle of the ocean and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic." He had discovered the “Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch”. Last November in Brussels, at a workshop we organised, I had the chance to meet Captain Moore. What he said made an impression on me.

And actually marine litter is not limited to the Pacific Ocean. It is a global problem…Only recently there was a Global Marine Debris conference in Hawaii. I could not (unfortunately....) travel to Honolulu but I was able to contribute a pre-recorded video message.

But let’s first ask a basic question: what is marine litter?

Its main component is plastic waste (83%). This is why many people speak about the “plastic soup”. In fact it is more than just plastic: it is made up of stuff that has been deliberately thrown out, unintentionally lost, or carried by winds and rivers, into the sea and onto the beaches. Discarded fishing nets find their way into the soup too. Overall, up to 80% of the marine litter actually comes from the land, from activities like tourism, sewage, illegal and poorly managed landfills. Most of the sea-based stuff comes from shipping and fishing.

Marine litter imposes an increasingly serious threat.

First it threatens biodiversity. It ends up on coasts, in the water column, floating and on the sea bed. Marine litter and mainly plastic particles are ingested by sea animals. Marine life gets caught in nets and swallows plastic pellets.

Second, marine litter threatens human and ecosystem health with the release of persistent bio-accumulating and toxic compounds for human beings and animal species.

Third, it threatens our economies and has a social impact – it impacts fishing, boating and tourism.

Fourth, Dare I say it also has an ethical dimension? What are we doing to our planet? It is like an enormous plastic hurricane. And WE made it!

Marine litter is present everywhere and the EU marine waters are not immune.

In the Mediterranean Sea, it has been estimated that about 250 billion floating plastic particles, representing a total of 500 tonnes of plastic waste dissolved1.

So what can be done?

One of the problems with marine litter is the lack of reliable and comprehensive data. This makes it really important to continue and to step up actions for the collection of reliable data covering the whole of the Mediterranean. This has to be done with key stakeholders such as national, regional and local authorities, research institutes, industries, the tourism sector, NGOs... in a nutshell, with all of you!

Given that the Mediterranean's marine litter comes mostly from the land, waste management infrastructures and practices throughout the region must be improved: in the south and east Mediterranean countries, more than 80% of landfills are uncontrolled; in Greece only 10% of plastic waste is recycled or recovered.

Public awareness and education campaigns such as “Keep the Mediterranean Litter-free Campaign”, carried out by three Greek organizations2 or the efforts of the well-known Greek Hellenic Marine Environment Protection Association3, are essential. Not only because they get the public involved, which, given where the litter comes from, is necessary for the success of any initiative or policy, but also because they are a reliable source of data and information.

Maybe, at this point in the presentation, you are thinking that some guy from Brussels is lecturing national and local stakeholders and not making any commitments. Here's my commitment: I will take my responsibilities seriously and use the tools I have at my disposal.

My first tool is a legal instrument. It is the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

I will make sure it is fully implemented. It is my role, it is my duty.

The Marine Directive identifies marine litter as one of 11 main concerns. In 2012 Member States must make an initial assessment on the state of the marine environment and define what is 'Good Environmental Status' with targets. A monitoring programme should be in place in 2014 and measures in 2015.

Good Environmental Status will mean that marine litter does not harm the coastal and marine environment. Relevant indicators should refer to the litter on the beach, in the water column, the amount of micro-plastics, and plastic ingested by animals. An EC Technical group has been set up to make sure monitoring is standardized, so we are all measuring in the same way.

My second tool is the regional sea Convention for the Mediterranean, the so-called “Barcelona Convention” (whose secretariat is, by the way, in Athens). The Barcelona Convention has been working hard since the mid eighties to address the problem. We thank them for that.

A new and important milestone will be the adoption of a new Strategy by the Conference of the Parties (at the beginning of 2012). This will aim to minimise marine litter in the Mediterranean through regional and national activities. We will support the adoption and proper implementation of the Strategy. And we expect Greece to be actively involved.

My third tool is in fact a legal arsenal.

It is not directly related to the marine environment but it is a powerful weapon. I said that 80% of marine litter comes from land – this means looking beyond the seas to see how we can solve the problem. It is a part of the broader problem of waste management.

In terms of recycling and energy recovery rate of plastics, there are large differences between the Member States. Some Member States recover more than 90% of plastics; others (like Greece) recover less than 20%. Just to give you 2 examples: Denmark and the UK both joined the EU in 1973; they are both parties of the Atlantic North Sea Convention, and are both obliged to comply with the same EU legislation. But what do we see at the end? In the UK, about 75% of plastic are neither recycled nor used for energy production. In Denmark it is about 2%. The average for the EU + 2 (Norway and Switzerland) is 53%... only 53%. Higher recovery rates are needed. They are possible as shown by some countries.

They are also needed because, and this may sound a bit obvious, or even a bit stupid, but waste is only a problem where it is seen as a problem. Perhaps I should explain. There are Member States that have managed through different instruments, such as landfill charges or taxes, to induce better behaviour and get their sorting and collection systems to work. But there comes a point - you might call it a tipping point - at which, because the waste is collected and separated it has greater value. And from that moment the state and the municipalities need to interfere much less. Once waste is seen as a resource, the demand for it allows for the system to work on its own. Once waste acquires its own market; people want it so that they can use it; to bury or burn it would be rather like burying or burning money. So the real challenge for Greece is to get to that point.

We have a target for Member States to get to 22.5% recycling of packaging by 2008, and this target remains in effect today. You might ask whether such a target really serves a useful purpose. Several Member States have already shot way past it, and for them it is hardly an incentive to do even better. For others it could be argued that the target has not motivated them enough, so perhaps we should use other means.

As with any target covering the whole of Europe, the average covers a lot of different stories. But for me the essential one is what you can see on this graph (and by the way it is the same story for many waste streams): that the front runners have shown what is possible in the period of just a few years. If some have done it there is no reason for other not to do it. They can actually benefit from the experiences of the front runners. Perhaps we should look at revising the target, but even today it serves to highlight how far apart the best and least successful performers are.

Plastic bags are an integral part of packaging. As regards single use plastic carrier bags, some Member States have very effectively used economic instruments to achieve a significant reduction of their use in ways that are fully consistent with our Packaging Waste Directive. We need to share these experiences and learn from them.

The serious impact of single use plastic bags on the environment was discussed by the Council of Ministers in March. We agreed to work together on developing effective responses; and we must consider and analyse the impact of all options, including a Europe-wide ban of plastic bags.

In addition to the points I’ve already mentioned, I would like to highlight some additional actions.

  • As you may know, I was the European Commissioner in charge of Science and Research for 5 years. Without knowledge, you can't anticipate or act. If we want to win our fight against marine litter we have to know more about it. This is why we will promote more research on the impacts of micro-plastics, the toxicity of plastics and the potential of bio-degradable plastics. And at the request of the European Parliament (our hosts today), we will develop pilot projects to look at loopholes in the plastic cycle in coastal areas.

  • We will also push for partnerships with all stakeholders, starting with industry. In Honolulu, global plastics organizations decided to take action and act together to create a framework for shaping solutions on marine litter. This initiative is to be welcomed. I’m therefore willing to investigate further what can be done at European level to encourage voluntary agreements with and within industry.

  • Last but not least, we will use the upcoming review of the Port Reception Facility Directive to look into possible amendments to improve the current system, reduce and avoid the discharges into the sea of ship-generated waste and cargo residues.

A lot of work has to be done. Coordination and cooperation will be key. This is why I am considering the possibility of launching a political initiative on marine litter in the next coming months.

Marine litter is a big, big problem. The United Nations Environmental Programme has called it a “dire, vast and growing threat”. I am determined to address the problem. It will not be easy and it will take a long time.

And I therefore invite you to join me and Maria to dive into this awful ocean... and say “NO” to the “plastic monster”.

1 :

Reference: IFREMER and University of Liège. Estimates based on water samples taken off the coast of FR, northern IT and Spain at a depth of 10 to 15 m.

2 :

Campaign which resulted, inter alia to a brochure in 11 languages and a series of awareness and clean-up events

3 :

HELMEPA, invited to the event.

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