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SPEECH/11/247
Janez Poto─Źnik
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 prerecorded 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 seabased 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.
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
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.
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.
3
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.
4
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”.
5
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