Descriptor 10: Marine Litter
“Properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment”
Marine litter is a global concern, affecting all the oceans of the world. Every year, millions and millions of tons of litter end up in the ocean worldwide, turning it into the world's biggest landfill and thus posing environmental, economic, health and aesthetic problems.
Sadly, the persistence of marine litter is the result of poor practices of solid waste management, lack of infrastructure and a lack of awareness of the public at large about the consequences of their actions.
Plastic never biodegrades, but with the sunlight it splits into ever and ever smaller pieces ("photodegradation"), bits that are still plastic. The pieces get so small, that in the end they are ingested by over 180 known marine species, being mistaken for food and thus entering the food chain and ending up on your plate!
Research at the University of Plymouth has shown that plastic debris is fragmenting in the environment and that microscopic pieces of common polymers (micro plastics) are now present on shorelines and in the water column throughout the North East Atlantic. Pieces as small as 2µm have been reported and the abundance of such fragments has increased significantly over the last 40 years.
The plastics' oil base in the fragments attracts other floating chemicals in the ocean like persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The POPs concentrate on the fragments up to a million times ambient levels in sea water itself and so the plastic fragments become poison pills.
The Garbage Patch - Plastic Soup
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is a layer of rubbish in the Pacific Ocean which has been growing since the 1950s. It is the result of whirling currents, pulling trash from the world's oceans and floating between California and Hawaii. It is the world's largest landfill: according to estimates it has pulled 3.5 million tons of trash and spans 3.43 million km2, or the size of Europe. The EU has one at its frontdoor: the Atlantic Garbage Patch.
Check out how the GPGP forms here, see the map of garbage.
Plastic Beach in Hawaii (source: Algalita)
As plastic breaks into ever and ever smaller pieces, these microscopic bits of plastic not only litter the beach, it is - like fine bits of sand- becoming the beach:
- 5000 bits of plastic per m³ of sand on average.
The effects of plastic bits entering the body should not be underestimated.
"U.K. researchers in Plymouth and Southampton, England, found that microscopic fragments of nylon, polyester, and seven other types of plastic are widespread in sediments around British shores." (source: National Geographic)
Cleaning up the oceans is one option, it is however not the most efficient method in removing and preventing marine litter. You could compare it to seaming the sand in the desert and this is simply something that no county could afford. The solution is to tackle the problem at its source.
What are the main sources and pressures?
Main sources of marine litter come from
How long does it take to photodegrade plastic in the environment?
- Land-based activities:
- rivers and floodwaters
- industrial outfalls
- discharge from storm water drains
- untreated municipal sewerage
- littering of beaches, coastal areas (tourism)
- fishing industry
- Marine based activities:
- shipping (eg. transport, tourism, fishing)
- offshore mining and extraction
- illegal dumping at sea
- discared fishing gear’
In the North Sea, half of the litter comes from ships. (Source: UNEP, KIMO)
Facts & Figures
- Approximately 80% of marine litter is land-based
- In 2004, marine water samples contain 6 times more plastic than plankton, i.e. out of 7 kilo, 6 kilos of plastic vs. 1 kilo of plankton (source: Algalita)
- Cruise ships: 95.000 m³ of sewage from toilets and 5.420.000 m³ of sewage from sinks, galleys and showers are released into the oceans each day (source: Oceana)
- 250.000 kg of waste are removed from the North Sea yearly (source: KIMO)
- Samples of strandline material contain more than 10% plastic per weight. The fragments will increase with production. (source: KIMO)
Marine litter can cause serious economic damage: losses for coastal communities, tourism, shipping, fishing.
What is the EU doing?
18/10/2013: The European Commission is exploring options to set an EU-wide quantitative reduction headline target for marine litter, as called for in the recently-agreed 7th Environment Action Programme. The marine litter consultation is looking for additional input from citizens and stakeholders. Your views will help to identify the appropriate level of ambition for such a target. The questionnaire contains a series of actions that could be undertaken by consumers, retailers, the plastics industry, the shipping and fisheries industries, NGOs, local and national authorities and EU policy-makers to reduce the presence and impact of marine litter. These options include avoiding the use of single use plastic bags and plastic bottles, awareness-raising, clean-up actions, and setting reduction targets at national or local levels. Have your say here and read the press release!
16/11/2012: Commission press release "EU aiming to be at the forefront of efforts to reduce marine litter"
The Commission published a Commission Staff Working Document with an overview of relevant EU legislation, policies and strategies that touch on this problem. The document also includes an indication of on-going and future initiatives in this area.
Environment is a key component of the Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (Marine Directive), adopted in 2008.
The main goal of the Marine Directive is to achieve "Good Environmental Status" (GES) of all marine waters of the European Union by 2020. The decision under Article 9(3) MSFD on criteria of good environmental status addresses marine litter in descriptor 10 and aims at achieving that "Properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment".
The success of the Marine Directive depends largely on the effective integration of marine environmental concerns in EU legislation and policies. The Marine Directive aims to achieve this by providing a long-term policy view of the seas and enhanced cooperation in marine regions and internationally.
As a follow up to the Commission Decision on criteria and methodological standards on good environmental status (GES) of marine waters (Commission Decision 2010/477/EU), the Marine Directors requested the Directorate-General for the Environment (DG ENV) in 2010 to establish a technical subgroup under the Working Group on GES (WG GES) in relation to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive 2008/56/EC (MSFD) for further development of Descriptor 10 Marine Litter and Descriptor 11 Noise/Energy. For practical reasons the work was carried out by two separate groups. The reports compile the recommendations regarding Descriptor 10 (Marine Litter) and Descriptor 11 (Noise).
Marine Litter High-Level Preparatory Meeting - Stakeholders to tackle solutions for marine litter
The Environment Directorate General of the European Commission organised stakeholder meetings on 22 September 2011 and 30 November 2011 to explore common solutions to the problem of marine litter. The meeting with interested parties follows a speech of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik on the protection of the Mediterranean, in which he called for partnerships with all stakeholders, starting with industry, to further investigate what can be done at European level to encourage voluntary agreements with and within industry to reduce marine litter. Participants were invited to brainstorm on stakeholder involvement in the coordination of initiatives already under development and to propose new ideas. Emphasis was put on a non-legislative approach. The summary of actions that result from the brainstorming served as a basis for the high-level conference, that took place in Berlin on 10-12 April 2013.
Meeting Summary 30/11/2011
Meeting summary 27/02/2012
Clean up the Med! Commissioner Potočnik visits Athens
Commissioners Janez Potočnik and Maria Damanaki went on a joint visit to Athens between 7 and 8 April to raise awareness about the actions of the European Commission at this stage to address marine litter. During his stay, Mr Potočnik spoke to the National Parliament and the General Assembly of the European Youth Parliament where he reiterated the increasingly serious threat marine litter poses to the marine environment. He also met with the Members of the Greek Government, several NGOs active in the field of environment and visited a waste water treatment facility.
Link to video and speech.
Commission Workshop on Marine Litter (Brussels, 8 November 2010)
The presence of marine litter in our oceans is becoming a global concern that requires action. Adequate measures are needed to address the pressure of litter in the marine environment both at sea and on land whereby public awareness plays an important role.
Following an answer by environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik to Parliamentary question of Caroline Lucas and Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (E-0825/10 and E-0104/10), the Commission organised a workshop on marine litter in Brussels on 8 November 2010.
The workshop brought together the main players in the field of marine litter, such as policy-makers, NGOs, the science community and the (plastic) industry. In a result-oriented and open discussion, we took stock of the state of the marine environment with regard to marine litter, including the so-called plastic soup, the latest scientific insights of its (potential) effects and explored possible solutions.
Commission to analyse possible action against use of plastic bags
Austria, supported by a large number of Member States, invited the Commission to analyse possible regulatory action against the use of plastic bags, given the highly negative impact on the environment of the mass of single-use plastic bags put into circulation annually within the EU (estimated at 800 000 tons).
On a global level: the Honolulu Strategy
The Honolulu Strategy, published by UNEP and the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is a framework for a comprehensive and global effort to reduce the ecological, human health, and economic impacts of marine debris. This document is the result of last year’s successful 5th International Marine Debris Conference (5IMDC), which brought together a wide array of stakeholders passionate about finding lasting solutions to the marine debris problem, and ongoing consultations with relevant stakeholders in the months following the conference. It is intended to help improve collaboration and coordination among the multitude of groups and governments across the globe in a position to address marine debris. It is intended to serve as a common frame of reference for action among these communities, as well as a tool for groups to develop and monitor marine debris programs and projects.
The final version of the Honolulu Strategy can be downloaded here.
The European Commission commissioned 3 Pilot Projects (studies) on marine litter.
As the studies are closely linked, a common chapter has been developed, integrating the respective results.
The results of the studies are now available here:
The European Commission is currently running a Pilot Project "Removal of marine litter from Europe's four regional seas" (MARELITT). The overall objective is to assist EU Member States in reaching the objective of achieving ‘good environmental status’ (GES) of all EU marine waters by 2020 as laid out in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) (MSFD) and reducing the impact of marine litter on the coastal and marine environment. MARELITT will assess existing marine litter removal projects in Europe’s four regional seas from the organisational, economic and environmental perspectives. The assessment will allow for the definition of good practices.
The project runs from January 2013 until December 2014.