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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Speech: Let’s Clean up Europe!

Launch of new European litter prevention network

Brussels, 18 March 2013

Since my first day as Commissioner in charge of the environment, I have been actively campaigning in favour of litter prevention. I see a litter-free environment as important for our health and for our wellbeing.

Some people seem to think that this issue only has a regional or local dimension. However, the accumulation of plastic waste in the world's oceans shows that littering is a matter of global concern.

We published a paper last November on the specific issue of marine litter. Now, the Green Paper on a "European strategy on plastic waste in the environment" is intended to open the discussion on the best way forward to tackle all aspects of plastic waste, new ways to increase recycling and waste prevention. The outcome of the Green Paper will also feed into the waste review we have announced for 2014.

Litter prevention is not a far‑fetched concept; it actually happens. Slovenia is one of the fore-runners. In 2010 and 2012, "Let’s Do It! Slovenia" mobilized nearly 15 % of the country’s population during one day to clean up the rubbish dumped in the countryside and in towns and cities.  I know – I was among that 15%.

I was impressed that a bunch of individual activists could achieve so much, using social networks and some quite advanced technology. With an electronic, GPS-located and updated register of illegal dumps and thousands of volunteers and coordinators working all year round, a network of organisations and supporters (including the President of Slovenia and members of the government and the parliament) they collected around 70,000 cubic meters or 15,000 tonnes of rubbish.

But the real change was in peoples' minds. In their awareness of litter, and of waste. Clean-up campaigns are a formidable tool to raise public awareness and involve citizens. People actually like to be involved. It is particularly important to focus on the younger generations.

In 2012, Let’s Do It! World, based in Estonia, coordinated the World Clean-up 2012 action, which mobilized 7 million volunteers in 84 one-day clean-up actions in Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Europe. I would like to see campaigns across Europe in 2014 and hope that you can join me in supporting the networking of volunteers.

Plastic waste and litter, marine litter

Prevent littering is the responsibility of Member States under European legislation. We only set the frame and the objectives to be achieved at European level.

It follows that national authorities – and in particular municipalities – have to decide the measures to be taken to prevent littering. This is not only about putting up litter bins in public places. It is more important to provide the necessary infrastructure to individual households. People will not litter where easily accessible practical infrastructure is available for their use.

Marine litter is the most serious consequence of inadequate waste management on land. Nearly 80 % of marine litter started out on land. Most of that litter is plastic waste. Sources are manifold, but in all cases, the phenomenon is linked to insufficient waste management infrastructure.

We often hear that cultural factors determine citizens' attitude towards littering. This view confuses cause and consequence. Culture may play a certain role, but without infrastructure,
it is not possible to prevent littering. Good governance is also important. Where public authorities take their responsibility you find very little or no littering.

Packaging industry’s role, packaging design, less waste, easier recycling

The packaging industry obviously plays a key role. Nearly 60 % of our plastic waste is packaging waste. Therefore, the packaging industry has to be part of the solution.

The packaging industry should in the first place make a distinct effort to reduce “over-packaging”. The objective in future should not be to produce as much as we can but to produce as smart as we can. To put it in a nutshell: packaging is ok where it clearly serves a useful purpose but it should be avoided where it is simply superfluous.

Single use plastic carrier bags are one obvious example. We all use plastic bags, but nobody wants to be responsible for the environmental damage they cause. The packaging industry itself should look for better alternatives.

There should be a lot more recycling of packaging plastic. Recycling starts in the product design phase. Plastic packaging should be designed in a way that it is easily and efficiently recycled. For example, recycling can be made easier by avoiding dark pigment that are difficult to remove and result in 'unattractive' grey recycled plastics; and plastics should be chemically simpler and cleaner; and multi-layer packaging material should be designed in a way that it does not pose a risk to recycling. The packaging industry could also take responsibility for engaging in separate collection systems together with retailers.

Good Experience in some Member States

Litter prevention is very successful in some Member States and less successful in others. I am not aware of any dedicated study to identify the success factors for litter prevention, but I know that you are already bringing together many such experiences. I am sure that one common feature of success is a functioning waste management infrastructure – regular waste collection, separate collection bins, public waste collection points for glass, metal, paper, solvents, bulky rubbish. All of these mean less littering.

I encourage you to spread best practices through your network. Making best practice systematically and proactively available to others has a huge potential to make fast progress in the fight against littering.

Ladies and Gentlemen…

I have always seen waste management as part of the wider resource efficiency agenda. I argue that if we see waste as a resource it ceases to be a problem as it becomes valuable – people want it. You see a transition from NIMBY to PIMBY: from "not in my back yard" to "please in my back yard".

So if litter is "waste that is in the wrong place", then we can follow the same logic and see it as a valuable resource that is in the wrong place. Perhaps we will start see litter disappear as quickly as we would see a dropped coin picked up. I doubt it, but at least if we see waste as being valuable, less of it will become litter in the first place.

I wish the new European Network on Litter Prevention every success.

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