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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

'Let’s Free our Oceans from this Plague'

International Conference on Prevention and Management of Marine Litter in European Seas",

Berlin, 12 April 2013

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me start by welcoming the ‘Message from Berlin’ and expressing my appreciation for your work. Thanks to the commitment of people like you, the issue of marine litter is now high of the political agenda. This is something we can all be proud of…. something which gives me satisfaction.

I must say that the file has progressed very quickly in the last couple of years.

I remember, that in 2010, during the OSPAR Ministerial Conference in Bergen, we were 'served' a plastic breakfast, comparable to what a local seabird, the Northern Fulmar, has on average in its stomach. That breakfast was not easy to digest.

Two months later I met Captain Charles Moore, the person who identified these large ocean systems of rotating currents and the so-called "plastic soup" which is created by our waste. I was shocked by the extent of the problem of marine litter all over the world.

The Rio+20 Summit last year showed the extent to which marine litter has now become an issue of truly global concern. It was the only new target agreed by the international community. At Rio, we committed to take action and come to a significant reduction of marine litter by 2025.

In line with that commitment, the European Commission suggested, in its proposal for a 7th Environment Action Programme, the setting-up of an EU-wide quantitative reduction target for marine litter.

In a nutshell, in less than 3 years, our focus has shifted from problems to solutions. This is an achievement in itself.

But one can say that marine litter is…. unfortunately…. emblematic of our wasteful economy.

The EU economy still generates far too much waste: we use 16 tons of resources per person per year, of which 6 tons go to waste. We cannot afford to go on like this! Using resources in a more efficient way is not only a moral duty but it is also an economic imperative if we want to overcome the current crisis and re-orient our economies towards long-term sustainable growth.

I would like to see an economy which minimises waste; one which uses just the amount of resources that are needed; one that stops wasting our resources!

Marine litter is… again unfortunately… also emblematic of totally inadequate waste management on land. We all know that 80 % of marine litter is estimated to come from land-based sources. Most of that litter is plastic waste. This clearly means that our priority has to be a comprehensive approach that targets plastic waste.

Last month, the European Commission published a Green Paper on a "European strategy on plastic waste in the environment". The purpose is to open the discussion on the best way forward to tackle all aspects of plastic waste, including new ways to increase recycling and waste prevention. Later this year, on 30 September, we will hold a conference on the results of the consultation. And the outcomes will feed into the waste review which I announced for 2014.

Litter prevention is not a far‑fetched concept; it is actually happening! I am proud to say that my own country, Slovenia, is one of the front-runners. In 2010 and 2012, an initiative named "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 was among that 15% and can assure you that the real change was in peoples' minds. The real change is in their awareness of waste and what it does to our countryside and our seas. Clean-up campaigns are formidable tools to raise public awareness and involve citizens, and this is why I have been promoting a Clean-Up Day at EU level. People actually like to be involved and should be, because without them no policy can be successful. Change needs to go beyond legislation.

The private sector, and in particular the packaging industry, also has a key role to play. Nearly 60 % of our plastic waste is packaging waste. Industry has to be part of the solution.

We need to make a distinct effort to reduce “over-packaging”. The objective should be to package as smart as we can. Packaging is fine where it clearly serves a useful purpose but it should be avoided where it is simply superfluous.

At the same time, we need to increase the recycling of plastic packaging. 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 is difficult to remove and results in 'unattractive' grey recycled plastics; plastics should be chemically simpler and cleaner; and multi-layer packaging material should be designed in a way that it does not hamper recycling.

As I said, litter prevention is very successful in some Member States, we need to learn from them. I know that you are already bringing together many experiences and best practices. I am sure that one common feature of success is a well-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.

But to address marine litter in our seas, we need to go a step further. We need more and stronger cooperation at the regional level and at the global level. In our Roadmap "Towards a Resource Efficient Europe" published in 2011, we committed to contribute to the development of the regional action plans. The further development of these regional action plans on marine litter during this conference, with a very active involvement of the four regional seas conventions is a good example of how to cooperate within the European context.

We also want to extend this promising cooperation to the global level. And I am very pleased to see that UNEP is using this conference for the further development of the Global Partnership on Marine Litter.

***

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have always seen waste management as part of the wider resource efficiency agenda. I would argue that if we see waste as a resource, it ceases to be a problem; it becomes valuable - people want it. 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 currently in the wrong place.

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

I salute your engagement with the 'Message from Berlin'.

I myself am committed to follow up on it. The commitment in the 7th Environmental Action Programme, the upcoming review of the waste legislation and the further implementation of the Marine Strategy clearly set the agenda for the European Commission. And we will continue to support the regional seas conventions in the implementation of their action plans.

I wish all of us, national representatives, producers of plastic packaging and plastic goods, recyclers, retailers, fishing sector, ship and cruise-ship owners, local authorities, river basin authorities, NGOs, academia and we, the citizens, all the success in the endeavour to free our oceans from the litter plague.


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