Ladies and gentlemen,
I'm happy to be part of this opening of your second day and I want to thank you for dedicating this event, and your time, to the issue of how best to tackle plastic pollution.
Just the other day I was part of a clean-up operation in the small harbour where I grew up, back in Malta. This was one of 4000 'Lets clean up Europe' events which took place across the EU". Now happily, for my own village, there was a lot less plastic waste than at last year's clean up.
But what about across the rest of the EU, and indeed the globe?
I want to talk about what the current plastic pollution situation is, what the effects are, and what we are doing to tackle the issue – at local and natural level, at EU level, and equally important at international level.
Defining the problem
Yesterday you addressed the latest facts and figures on plastic(s) in our oceans and you discussed how to take concrete action. The 5 plastic Gyres. These marine wastelands, in our planet's oceans are the most visible manifestation of the problem of plastics. Their scale and size is barely comprehensible. Their surface area is bigger than countries. Even worse, as they grow in mass by the currents that drive them, they increase also in depth.
Thinking of my own village in Malta, it is important to remember that plastic(s) waste does not just accumulate on the high seas. A recent study calculated that the volume of plastic in the Mediterranean is reaching the same levels as these giant gyres.
What is clear is that, irrespective of which sea or ocean the plastic is polluting, it is constant in one characteristic. It slowly and constantly fractures and disintegrates into trillions of microplastic pieces.
These pieces of microplastic, so pervasively invade our ecosystems, mix with the sand on our beaches and weaken our water systems, and penetrate our food chain. That of course means that these microplastics are also finding their way in our bodies.
Many of us love the idea of having fish for dinner. As I am also Fisheries Commissioner, I am encouraging you to enjoy fish, be healthy and support our fishing industry across the EU.
But just think how we have become part of this vicious circle. We buy fish for one evening dinner. The fishmonger gives us the fish wrapped in a plastic carrier bag to keep the fish fresh during its epic journey from sea to our plate.
What we forget is that that plastic carrier bag is ready to make its own epic journey from land to sea. There, it will break up into tiny particles which are then eaten by small fish, which are eaten by bigger fish.
It is a very ironic that years later that bag - designed to keep our fish fresh and clean – could form part of our next seafood meal, having being ingested all the way up the food chain, to arrive back on our plate inside the fish in microscopic form.
The health implications are still being examined and researched but we need to make this a central part of how we tackle the problem.
And the problem is not just microscopic.
On land, beaches are disfigured by plastic strewn everywhere. The economic impact is enormous – opportunities for sustainable and long term tourism projects are lost. Such beaches are not a place for a healthy family recreational activity.
In 2004, marine water samples, in some problematic areas, contained 6 times more plastic than plankton.
At least six million tonnes of plastic end up in our seas and oceans every year.
From Environmental concern to economic opportunity
To me plastic pollution is one of the most striking symptoms of a resource-inefficient economy.
Often, the issue is couched in terms of environmental impact and economic cost. And that impact and cost is huge:
Across the EU, cleaning up coasts and beaches can cost up to € 630 million a year. An additional 60 million is spent by the fishing industry to clean up and remove discarded nets and propellers. This amounts to 1% of the total revenue of the fishing fleet.
But the issue should also be seen in terms of an economic opportunity. And one where the EU can lead.
This is the focus of the European Commission’s new, ambitious Circular Economy Strategy.
This autumn we will present our proposal.
It will look at every aspect of the cycle, starting with the conception and design phase of products.
It is during the design phase that we can intervene to reduce waste and maximise how much of that product is reusable.
We need to ensure that components are designed to be repaired, re-used, remanufactured and then recycled.
We also need to ensure there is a real market for "secondary raw materials" in the EU – including for plastics.
Finally, we need good waste management everywhere in the EU. We need to recycle more. The public consultation on the circular economy action plan will open soon and I count on your expert input.
Please have your say so that we can get as detailed a picture as possible.
This process is as much about changing perceptions as it is about changing production methods.
If we are serious about reducing the plastic waste on our planet we need to activate all parts of the chain.
Member States, Producers, and Consumers all have a vital role. For consumers, with the right information, the concept of what is a desirable product can change.
Think of the shifting perception of cigarettes. Once considered a 'glamorous' product, it is now seen as dangerous and harmful. We have not managed to entirely eradicate smoking but awareness campaigns have helped to reduce it. Many citizens have been educated about the negative toxic risks that your body is exposed to by smoking. When it comes to the unscrupulous use of plastics and the issue of marine litter, and particularly microplastic waste, we need to start a similar process of education. Plastics perform an essential role in our society. And those in the industry are making huge steps to ensure that it forms part of a new approach to production chains, and to reduce their negative impacts.
But we must remember –plastic is a double edged knife, which can be fatal if used irresponsibly. The Circular economy is the right model to prevent plastic waste.
With a shifting consumer demand, Producers can be incentivised to radically change modes of production. Instead of a vicious circle of plastic to fish to plate to body, we can have a circular economy virtuous circle of plastic to plastic.
For this to truly work we need to act at global level. Of course before making grand calls for action we must ensure that our own house is in order, so I will quickly outline what we are doing at EU level.
What we are doing at EU level
The 7th Environmental action programme is very clear in calling for action at EU level on marine litter. It proposes an EU wide target on reducing marine litter, a goal we have already started working on by first and foremost reducing the use of plastic bags – a major source of maritime litter. The Commission's proposal to reduce the use of lightweight plastic bags has been adopted. Next to less use, we have to work on ambitious recycling targets. Clear, smart recycling targets could reduce marine litter entering our seas by up to a third. A good step in the right direction.
At EU level, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, is a valuable tool. Member States have to adopt measures to protect the marine environment including from marine litter. This will allow national proposals to link up with our regional plans for the seas surrounding the EU.
We are reviewing the Port Reception Facilities Directive to better tackle waste generated on ships.
We are also investing heavily in research and innovation to fill in the knowledge gaps and better understand the impacts from marine litter.
For instance we have launched a study on reducing marine micro-plastics pollution from cosmetics.
I do applaud any voluntary steps by the industry; right now we are exploring how effective these are, how the issue is being dealt with at national level and what the appropriate level of intervention would be.
These measures are all designed to reduce the volume of plastics.
What we are doing at international level
Meanwhile, we have signed up to the Rio+20 commitments to achieve significant reductions in marine litter by 2025.
And as part of the broader post-2015 agenda, we are working to include seas, oceans and marine litter related indicators within the future Sustainable Development Goals.
It is also encouraging to note that also the G7 wants more action on marine litter and resource efficiency. And we continue to work for sustainable products and technologies at international level - to expand their market and to ensure a level playing field for our own producers.
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. 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.
Concerted action and the role of stakeholders
I strongly believe that for our efforts to be effective we need a global concerted action.
This is why I will work closely with global partners and also with the EU co-legislators, my fellow Commissioners, national governments and regional organisations.
Also essential, for this concerted action to work, is the involvement of civil society, NGOs, and businesses, which I know is well represented here today.
When I think back to my involvement in the clean-up operation in my home harbour last week, the most encouraging aspect was knowing that that action was only one of 4000 going on around Europe.
We are quickly realising it is time for more sustainable choices. The connection between the plastic in our hand and the plastic in the sea is clearer. The role of the consumer in deciding the type of production chains we use is growing. There is a stronger sense of individual responsibility. With concepts like the circular economy, that individual sense can become a consumer led march towards new methods. With top companies already aligning themselves to these demands, I think we can make real progress. I thank you all for your valuable contribution during this meeting, and I am looking forward to us working together to help make a real difference.
(speech delivered to Microplastics conference in Brussels on 12 May, 2015).