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News: May 2018

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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