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Marine litter: the ingredients for the ocean’s plastic soup

Marine litter is turning our ocean into a plastic soup. At least 8 million tons flows into our ocean every year, which amounts to economic losses of $82 million annually.

On Wednesday 8 November, IUCN – the International Union for Conservation of Nature – organized the event ‘Marine Plastics Need European Action’ at the European Parliament, opened by European Commissioner for the Environment, Karmenu Vella. Representatives from Plastics Europe, Seas at Risk, the Portuguese Ministry of Maritime Policy, UN Environment and the European Parliament and Commission were present.

Following the evening, two things were clear: 1) “plastic has empowered mankind” and has enabled our fast-paced lifestyle, and 2) urgent, collaborative action is needed to tackle the plastic soup that is our ocean, and the EU has already made concrete commitments to do so.

The state of our ocean is more terrifying than the creatures that live within its waters. As conservationist Pierre-Yves Cousteau pointed out, “I am more scared of marine litter than I am of sharks”. Member of the European Parliament Ricardo Serrão Santos stated that “there is more microplastic than phytoplankton” and Pierre-Yves claimed that he has “yet to complete one dive during which he does not see any plastic”.

Although there are many advantages to plastics, it is especially single-use plastics such as bags, straws and cigarette butts that are causing havoc on an ecosystem that helps sustain our planet. Today, 30% of commercially sold fish have plastics in their gut, and 30% of oysters and molluscs have small plastic pearls inside them. Plastic is not only on their menu, but also on ours. When we eat the fish or oysters, the plastic particles enter and accumulate in our bodies.

But we “can’t recycle our way out of this problem”, according to Monica Verbeek from Seas at Risk. Rather, we must “add value” by using plastics in long-lasting products and guarantee that they are still “of use after the product’s lifetime”. Pierre-Yves Cousteau agrees and thinks we should “reinvent pottery” and ensure the zero waste lifestyle is viable on a large scale.

However, in order to turn the tide against plastics, it is necessary to eliminate land-based sources. For this, as stated by the Head of UN Environment Brussels Office Ulf Bjornholm, we “need to work on different levels”. We must collaborate globally and between sectors, because “marine plastics go beyond Sustainable Development Goal 14”, according to Fausto Brito e Abreu, the Director General of the Ministry of Maritime Policy in Portugal.

The EU is working hard to protect the oceans and is working with the “Regional Seas Conventions to develop marine litter action plans around the EU”, stated Commissioner Vella, adding that, the EU is “also working closely with the UN Environment Programme, [and] supporting the implementation of UNEA resolutions on marine litter and microplastics”. To top it off, he announced that the EU has donated its “highly successful global ‘aquariums against marine litter’ campaign to UN Environment to build awareness around the world”.

UN Environment continues to move international action towards a pollution-free planet, most notably through its Environment Assembly (4-6 December, Nairobi), and by encouraging individuals to beat pollution in their daily lives.

It is evident that “not one solution fits all”, but we seem to be at the turning point. Businesses are becoming involved. Plastics Europe has not only established a World Plastics Council, in order to take into account the different perspectives, but has also “pledged to prevent resin pellet loss into the environment”.

The speakers are in agreement, it is time for the world to rethink plastics! As said by Ulf Bjornholm, we “know enough about the problems, now we want solutions”.

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