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News: May 2018

Solving the Italian beach litter mystery

Photo: Clean Sea Life Photo: Clean Sea Life

31 May 2018 Clean Sea Life sounded the alarm about millions of small plastic discs washing ashore in south-west Italy. The LIFE project is monitoring the situation, organising beach clean-ups, and using the incident to study the movement of marine litter.

The project team first heard reports of the plastic discs on a beach in Campania on 21 February 2018. After alerting the coastguard and local authorities, the project broke the story to the Italian media and raised public awareness about the dangers of this type of marine litter. The team have mapped all reports of the plastic along Italy's Tyrrhenian coast, with the diska found as far away as Liguria, the French Riviera, Corsica and Sardinia.

Volunteers clean beaches

The Clean Sea Life team is encouraging the public to continue reporting occurrences of the discs, and to pick them up: “If we don’t pick them up now, they’ll continue to pollute our sea forever, breaking up bit by bit into smaller and smaller pieces.” They mobilised hundreds of volunteers, who have collected over 150 000 discs so far.

On examination, the project identified the discs as a plastic biofilm carrier used for water purification, most likely from a wastewater treatment plant.

Locating the source

Photo: Clean Sea Life Image: Clean Sea Life

Working with oceanographers, the project team matched the pattern of sightings with ocean currents and weather conditions to identify the source of the plastic waste. This detective work led to the door of a wastewater treatment plant, where it was revealed millions of the biofilm carriers had been discharged into the sea after an accident.

The project partners and the LaMMA consortium put together a report on the incident. This is being used by prosecutors in a court case in Salerno involving the water treatment company.

Months after the first massive shoreline deposits, plastic discs are still washing up on Italian beaches in successive waves. Why is this? The project are using the incident as a case study to find out.

Floating plastic litter

“The source was identified by back-tracking,” the team says. “We can also simulate future impact on Italian beaches by forward-tracking.”

Photo: Clean Sea Life Photo: Clean Sea Life

Oceanographic models showed how at least half of the plastic spill had moved offshore. This has created a reservoir of floating plastic, with large amounts washing ashore during storm surges. Little is known about how plastic waste moves at sea, so the project sees the incident as an opportunity to learn more about the dispersion of marine litter. 

Plastic is the most common type of debris deposited on beaches, with single-use plastics such as lightweight bags, straws and disposable cups accounting for around 70% of marine litter. The Commission is addressing this through its Circular Economy Action Plan. For instance, on 28 May 2018, it announced the EU Regulation on single-use plastics. This introduces new rules to ban certain single-use plastic products, along with rules covering deposit refund schemes for plastic bottles, and other measures.

Clean Sea LIFE (2016 to 2020) is raising awareness about marine litter in the Mediterranean Sea, through the active involvement of citizens, fishermen, diving associations, boat owners, ports and city authorities. These stakeholders are involved in beach clean-up and ‘fishing for litter’ activities.

LIFE gives power to sustainable energy solutions

Photo: LIFE SAVE LIFE SAVE prototype

30 May 2018 Next week is EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW). Here are four LIFE projects helping to lead us towards the clean energy transition.

LIFE IP BE REEL! Is a new LIFE Integrated Project that is tackling energy inefficiency in Belgium's aging housing stock. “About 70% of these properties are more than 40-50 years old, and the energy performance of these homes is far behind the European average,” explains Roel Vermeiren from the Flemish Energy Agency (VEA), the coordinating beneficiary of the project. “We will accelerate the implementation of the long-term home renovation strategies of the Flemish and Walloon regions through a combination of actions,” he says. This will be achieved through capacity building and training for administrators and stakeholders, guidelines for the construction sector, innovative techniques and new financial instruments.

“One of our big challenges is to convince homeowners and tenants to renovate towards high energy performance homes. The challenge is to motivate them and show them that it is possible, not only technically but that it is also a financially sound investment,” says project coordinator Eddy Deruwe.

The aim is to fully renovate more than 8 500 homes in Ghent, Antwerp, Mechelen, Mouscron and La Louvière, giving a practical demonstration of the energy efficiency strategies and putting Belgium on the path to a 75-80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and energy use by 2050.

Find out more about LIFE IP BE REEL! at 14:00 in the Networking Village Energy Lab at EUSEW on Wednesday, June 6.

Street lighting control system

LIFE-DIADEME's cost-efficient new system for dimming street lighting promises to reduce energy consumption by 30% in comparison with state-of-the-art control systems. Led by the company, Reverberi Enetec, the project will show off its mid-point progress at EUSEW on a four-year LIFE climate change mitigation project taking place in the EUR district of Rome. Known for its architecture, this business and residential area could soon also be known for a pilot project that will see the installation of a distributed network of around one thousand high-tech, low-cost sensors. These don't just save on energy consumption and street lighting, they will enable noise, traffic and air pollution to be monitored too. The project is also supported by two associations working to reduce light pollution.

With more than 90 million traditional street lights in Europe, there is a huge potential for smart lighting solutions. LIFE-DIADEME's Energy Talk in EUSEW's Networking Village in Brussels is at 15:00-15:30 on Thursday June 7.

To achieve EU targets for reducing CO2 emissions from transport by 2020, we need more sustainable forms of mobility. The LIFE SAVE project is harnessing Mediterranean sunshine to develop and test a kit that turns turn ordinary cars into hybrid vehicles. 'SAVE' stands for 'Solar Aided Vehicle Electrification'. And thanks to LIFE, a team in Italy and Malta is helping the prototype HySolarKit become market-ready. The idea is simple and ingenious: what if cars with an internal combustion engine could be retrofitted at low-cost to become hybrid-solar? Lower greenhouse gas and nitrous oxide emissions will be possible if all goes to plan. The aim is to achieve a target commercial price of €3 000-3 500 per kit and set up in business by 2021.

Galicia in northern Spain has been found to have more wave energy than anywhere else in the Iberian Peninsula. This makes it a leading contender for developing wave power. LIFE DEMOWAVE has just started assembling one of two 25 kW prototype wave energy convertors at the port of A Coruña, ahead of installation this summer. The aim of the trials is to show that the convertors can withstand extreme weather conditions in these rough seas and assess energy-generation performance in real-world conditions in comparison with other technologies. This will enable designs to be scaled up for any location to make technology transfer viable.

EU awards best LIFE projects for nature, environment and climate action

Photo: EC Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for
Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries
Photo: EC

24 May 2018 Today during EU Green Week – Europe’s biggest environmental event – Commissioner Karmenu Vella announced the winners of the 2016 and 2017 LIFE Awards. The nine winners include projects from Belgium, Greece, Spain, Italy, Austria, Poland and Slovakia. A special people's Choice Award, in line with this year's Green Week focus on sustainable cities, was given to a LIFE green city project, exploring solutions to reduce air pollution in cities.

Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries said: “Congratulations to the winners and finalists in these LIFE Awards! These outstanding projects show how LIFE makes a difference to our environment, nature, climate, our cities, and – above all – to the lives of EU citizens. They show the LIFE programme at its best – supporting local innovation, replicable across national borders, with benefits for all Europeans. I am delighted that with the new proposal for an increased budget, LIFE will continue to help build a greener future even on a greater scale."  

Miguel Arias Caňete, EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy said: “Climate action starts with people. These outstanding LIFE Climate Action projects show that well-designed actions involving citizens and businesses from the outset can achieve concrete results. LIFE helps small, climate-smart investments make a visible impact, for example by helping farmers develop sustainable and economically viable techniques. It shows that meaningful change is feasible and affordable.”

The LIFE Awards recognise the most innovative, inspirational and effective LIFE projects in the fields of nature protection, environment and climate action. If applied widely, they can have a highly positive impact on the environment, boosting economic growth and providing significant benefits for European citizens.


Photo: EC Photo: EC

From 62 finalists, nine outstanding projects have been awarded the title “Best LIFE project”. The winners include environment projects from Italy, Spain and Poland, nature projects from Belgium, Greece, and Slovakia, and climate action projects from Spain (two projects) and Austria. Winning projects were chosen for their contribution to environmental, economic and social improvements, paying special attention to their innovation, replicability, relevance to policy and cost effectiveness.

Environment winners:

  • ECOREMED (Italy) – Showed that pollutant-removing plants can stop toxic elements getting onto farmland and into the food chain. These plants also provide biomass for sustainable energy and biodegradable plastics.
  • LIFE ECO-DHYBAT (Spain) – Pioneered new best practices in cleaning production lines for processed food. Savings in chemicals, water, and energy could be widespread thanks to these Best Available Techniques.
  • EH-REK (Poland) – Rehabilitated reservoirs in the city of Łódź to improve water quality and allow continued recreational use.

Nature winners:

  • LIFE Kleine Nete (Belgium) – Restored valuable river and floodplain habitats in Flanders, reducing flood risk and boosting biodiversity.
  • LIFE Arctos/Kastoria (Greece) – Reduced lethal collisions between cars and bears along a highway in northern Greece. Good news for wildlife and for drivers.
  • APUS & NYCTALUS (Slovakia) – Installed thousands of nest boxes to welcome swifts and bats back to cities in Slovakia where former nesting sites have been made inaccessible by improvements to the energy efficiency of old buildings.

Climate Action winners:

  • LIFE+ AGRICARBON (Spain) – Helped farmers in southern Spain to switch to more sustainable and more precise agricultural techniques that were found to store 30% more carbon in the soil.
  • Crops for better soil (Spain) – Showed that organic farming methods can return carbon content to vulnerable soils and make them economically viable again.
  • EKO-LIFE (Austria) – Encouraged citizens of the Vorarlberg region to reduce their carbon footprint through lifestyle changes, and then become 'change ambassadors' to multiply the impact.  

People's Choice Award

In recognition of the theme of EU Green Week 2018, the public was invited to vote for its favourite LIFE Green City project, from a shortlist of six. The winner of the People's Choice Award is AIRUSE, a Spanish-led project that analysed air pollution in five cities in southern Europe and made recommendations for effective action to reduce levels of airborne particles.


#EUGreenWeek 2018 explores ways in which the EU is helping cities to become better places to live and work. Showcasing policy developments on air quality, noise, nature, biodiversity, waste and water management, it promotes participatory approaches to urban development. It also looks at networking schemes, tools for sharing best practices and ways of engaging local authorities and citizens, and encouraging them to share their vision of a sustainable future.

The LIFE programme is the EU's funding instrument for the environment and climate action. It has been running since 1992 and has co-financed more than 4 500 projects across the EU and in third countries. The programme has contributed over €4 billion to the protection of the environment and climate and mobilised over €9 billion in total. At any given moment some 1 100 projects are ongoing. The budget for the LIFE Programme for 2014–2020 is set at €3.4 billion, and has sub-programmes for environment and climate action.

View a gallery of pictures of the LIFE Awards ceremony here.

Smaller companies get ready for REACH

 Photo: LIFE Fit for REACH Production of sealants
Photo: LIFE Fit for REACH

22 May 2018The final round of REACH applications closes on 31 May. By then all companies making or importing chemicals into the European Union will have to register each substance and assess its impact on public health and the environment.

REACH, short for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, is arguably the strictest piece of legislation regulating chemical substances to date.

Previous phases of deployment in 2010 and 2013 called for all companies buying chemicals in quantities larger than 1000 tonnes, and then 100 tonnes, to register their industrial ingredients with the newly established European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki, Finland. Now the rules are tightening to as little as a single tonne.

“The law could help phase out potentially toxic substances such as phthalates or brominated flame retardants,” said Valters Toropovs from the Fit for REACH project in Latvia. “Registration files include scientific evidence on the toxicological and ecological properties of chemical compounds.”

Baltic industry

Photo: Lauri Rotko - Fit for Reach Photo: Lauri Rotko
(Copyright European Chemicals Agency)

Fit for REACH works with companies in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to meet the new EU regulation. Its experts help slim down waste in factory processes, boost resource efficiency and, where possible, substitute potentially hazardous materials with safer alternatives in product recipes.

“A lot of undesirable substances can still be found in consumer goods,” said Toropovs. “Not just for professional and industrial use, you can even find them in chairs and the interior lining of some food cans.”

Companies working with Fit for REACH sell products and services spanning detergents, construction materials and repairing ships. They operate in different jurisdictions and their staff range from a handful of partners to several hundred employees. One thing that they now all have in common is a duty to comply with REACH.

Reaching SMEs

“Until this year, the burden fell mainly on huge chemical companies like BASF and Shell,” said Toropovs. “But a lot of smaller companies buy and use chemicals in amounts between 1 and 100 tonnes.”

Toropovs says that it may take time for REACH to reshape modern industry, but clearer insight and a steadily growing list of potentially harmful substances are already helping retailers work with manufacturers to remove potentially harmful substances from products.

“As a result of REACH, some chemical companies have recently started switching to suppliers within the EU,” said Toropovs. “It may take decades to reach our aspirations for public health and the environment, but it would never have happened without the EU.”


Beekeepers track invasive hornets to their nest

Photo: LIFE STOPVESPA Vespa velutina with tag

17 May 2018An insect-sized radar-transmitter is helping Italian beekeepers safeguard their hives from a recent outbreak of Asian hornets (Vespa velutina). In some areas of Liguria, Italy, 30% of bee colonies have completely collapsed.

The voracious hornet is native to South-East Asia and was probably introduced to the EU by accident in 2005 as a stowaway on board horticultural products. It has spread rapidly across France, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, devouring honey bees and other pollinating insects on its way. The species now figures on the EU’s hit-list of Invasive Alien Species of Union concern. 

The EU regulation on Invasive Alien Species calls for measures to control and, where possible, eradicate animals and plants introduced by accident into unfamiliar environments. So far, dealing with the Asian hornet has remained challenging. The insect typically builds its nests up to 20 meters from ground level, tucked away in buildings or tall leafy trees where it avoids detection. But technology is offering a way to spot even the best hidden lairs.

Bug the bug

Photo: LIFE STOPVESPA Harmonic radar prototype

With funds from the LIFE STOPVESPA project, researchers in Turin, Italy,  have built a tracking device to follow Asian hornets back home. Their invention glues a tiny copper rod to the back of a captured hornet with dentist resin. The tracker is light enough for the insect to carry, but large enough to reflect radar signals.

“We had to find a way to track the hornet passively,” said Simone Lioy who manages LIFE STOPVESPA. “Even the simplest GPS system requires batteries, and that would have weighed the insect down.”

Trained teams trap the hornets while they hunt in front of beehives, tag them with the metal tracker and release them in the wild. They then sweep through towns and countryside with radar emitters, picking up the location of their unwitting spies as they return to the nest.

In 2016, the first prototype radar spotted hornets equipped with the tracker within a 120-metre radius. Hardware and software improvements have since boosted the signal to nearly 500 metres. The update will be field-tested this June in efforts to create a hornet-free buffer zone and improve nest detection in new areas of invasion.

Early-response systems would be particularly valuable in Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK, where the Asian hornet has still to gain a foothold.  Liguria’s population of Asian hornets was growing exponentially since the species was first sighted there in 2012. Last year, LIFE-trained destroyer teams from the STOPVESPA project succeeded in containing this expansion for the first time.


Mediterranean prosecutors unite against avian killing

Photo:Campaign against Bird Slaughter Photo: Campaign against Bird Slaughter

14 May 2018Millions of birds are killed and trapped each year as they try to migrate between Europe and Africa. Prosecutors from 18 jurisdictions across the Mediterranean met in Segovia on 09 May to crack down on wildlife crime and bring organisations profiting from it to justice.

For the first time, prosecutors from Europe, Africa and the Middle East have trained together to protect birds migrating across their jurisdictions. The three-day workshop was organised by the European Network of Prosecutors for the Environment (ENPE) and funded under LIFE Environmental Governance & Information sub-programme for Environment.

The toll that illegal killing and trapping is taking on bird populations sends ripples across entire migratory flyways. Quails, raptors and buntings are gently vanishing from EU ecosystems. “Fifty years ago, the call of the turtle dove was a trademark feature of the UK countryside,” said Angus Innes from the UK Environment Agency. “Now it is a rarity.”

Campaign against Bird Slaughter Illegal bird killing across the
Image: Campaign against Bird Slaughter

Shaun Robinson from the UK Environment Agency views the challenge as an opportunity for transnational cooperation. “Birds don’t respect national boundaries,” he said. Neither do criminals. As secretary of the ENPE, he is driving for more international exchange between prosecutors. At the event, barristers from Egypt, Algeria, Bosnia, Israel and Tunisia joined peers from across the EU.

Already United Nations conventions like the Conservation of Migratory Species - of which the EU has been a Party since 1983 - are paving the way. A recent agreement in Malta even produced internationally recognised score cards for concerned citizens to report inadequacies in local bird protection.

The ENPE workshop went a step further in presenting prosecutors with case studies that could help them improve their effectiveness in court. It looked into recent trials, like the case of illegal hunters that shot critically endangered northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) in Italy, and detailed how they were convicted.

To help prosecutors make their case, the ENPE workshop introduced field techniques and legal strategies that have proven successful abroad, and has packaged these lessons into a one-day training session for delegates to share back home.

“Wildlife crime is a learning issue for society,” said Innes. “The whole change requires education of judges, law enforcement services, in the end it should be taught in schools.” LIFE funds are helping ENPE do their bit with prosecutors.

Read more about the EU’s measures to prevent environmental crimes and promote law enforcement in LIFE’s latest brochure on wildlife crime.

Safe passage for migrating geese

Photo: Mladen Vasilev Photo: Mladen Vasilev

08 May 2018LIFE-funded conservationists have put an end to the local killing of red-breasted geese (Branta ruficollis) in Bulgaria. They are now spreading their measures across the migration path of the threatened species to safely guide it home.

Lost in migration

The red-breasted goose has historically flown from nesting sites in northern Siberia to feeding grounds as far south as the Black Sea. In the early 2000s, nearly half the 90 000 red-breasted geese living in the wild ceased reaching Bulgarian shores.

To shed light on what was happening to the missing birds, the LIFE-funded Safe Ground Redbreasts project ringed 150 red-breasted geese in 2009 and tagged some of them with GPS transmitters.

This unprecedented data has since revealed living maps of redbreast roosting sites and foraging areas across Bulgaria. Subsequent studies suggested that hunters and poachers along their way had reduced the size of some flocks by up to 40% in a single year.

“This is a high mortality rate for a protected species,” said Nikolai Petkov from the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds.

Over the duration of the project, extensive consultations with farmers, hunters, fishermen and public authorities active near redbreast hotspots have helped reduced direct killings of the species to practically zero in Bulgaria.

Crossing borders

As manager of the follow-up LIFE FOR SAFE FLIGHT project, Petkov now hopes to build on these conservation measures and spread them to other destinations along the red-breasted goose’s migration path.

Today, some jurisdictions still take little account of population dynamics in their wildlife legislation. Russia, for instance, allows hunting in the springtime when birds are flying north to breed. This causes a greater impact on their overall population.

In line with the UN Convention on Migratory Species and the EU Birds Directive, ecologists working with LIFE FOR SAFE FLIGHT are now incorporating scientific insight into nature protection laws from Bulgaria to the Russian Arctic. Their contribution has notably fed into national action plans in Romania and Kazakhstan for conserving the red-breasted goose.

Even well-written laws do not always guarantee migrating birds safe passage. On paper, killing a red-breasted goose can run up to €2 500 in fines and even land a jail sentence in some countries. But few culprits are caught, and fewer still reach trial.

In a shift towards greater cooperation across countries and sectors, LIFE FOR SAFE FLIGHT is helping to train and equip wildlife patrols in Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine. The new teams combine representatives from hunting authorities, environmental agencies, NGOs and research organisations.


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