Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon, and thank you for this invitation to address the conference.  

I will start by saluting the ambition of this organisation, and congratulating you on your work so far. The "Clean Europe" days of 2014 and 2015 were excellent initiatives. They don't just resonate with citizens. They tap into a widespread feeling that we can all do more to address this problem. And they really are about action rather than talk, which is a great step forward.

The great thing about a conference like this is that it shows how widely we need to cast our net to solve the problem. Action on litter needs to involve policy makers and regulators. It's a matter for national authorities and industry, and crucially it involves citizens from all over. In Europe, as everywhere else, we all share responsibility for litter prevention.

Two days into this conference, you don't need me to tell how important the problem is. But I would like to start by giving a bit of background on the need to action.

My first reference here is the Ellen McArthur Foundation. As you probably know, they are champions of circular economy thinking. Marine litter is a special concern for their founder. Ellen McArthur is a round-the- world yachtsman who has experienced the problem close-up at first hand. Her foundation put out a new report in January this year. It was called "The New Plastics Economy - Rethinking the future of plastics," and it came to a rather frightening conclusion. By 2050, by weight, the ocean will probably contain more plastic than fish.

That is a terrible thought. A situation we cannot allow to happen.

This was brought home to me very clearly a week or two ago, through newspaper reports about whale strandings this year.

There have been an unusually high number of cetaceans stranded on Europe's beaches this year – almost 30 so far. When 13 sperm whales died on the shore near Toenning in Germany in February, the local authorities ordered a post mortem. It wasn't absolutely clear why they had died – they probably starved – but all the whales shared one sad feature. Their stomachs were filled with pieces of plastic. There were pieces of all sizes, from tiny nodules to a fishing net thirteen metres long.

What makes it worse is – these whales aren't filter-feeders. They hunt their prey, but even so, they can't avoid our litter.

We can't teach them not to eat plastic. The only thing we can do is to stop littering their habitat.

This also teaches us that littering is never a local problem. It's a global concern. Nearly 80% of the litter in the sea comes from sources on land, and most of that litter is plastic waste.

One good thing is that awareness is on the rise. The world took a big step forward when the 17 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted at the UN last year. They contain targets for preventing and reducing all types of waste. And they include a dedicated target to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, including marine debris.

Solving the problem, as I said, means casting our net widely. We need to make sure all the players are involved. Let's start by looking at the EU.

Europe can help by setting out a framework for action, with objectives. Where it can, the Commission will support actions and initiatives to prevent litter from happening in the first place. It is partly thanks to the Commission that those Sustainable Development Goals were adopted in the UN. And it will be our task to tackle global sustainability challenges, including waste and litter, both in the EU and in the international arena.

In fact we have been a militant voice in these areas for a number of years.

We proposed legislation to reduce the consumption of plastic carrier bags in 2013, and most recently, we adopted a major Communication on Circular Economy. It promises a new strategy for Plastics, proposals to Review the Waste Directives, and a major effort to move away from waste of any type happening in the first place.

The 7th Environmental Action Programme – I think of it as our mandate for action – called for an EU-wide reduction target for marine litter.

The Communication on Circular Economy answers that call, with a proposal for an aspirational target to reduce marine litter by 30% by 2020. A reduction target like this sends a clear signal to Member States, and it provides an impetus to develop marine litter action plans within Europe's Regional Sea Conventions.

We should also mention the Marine Strategy Framework Directive; which sets the overall objective of reaching Good Environmental Status for European seas in 2020, giving Member States a framework to develop marine strategies. Those strategies need to address pressures and impacts on the environment, including marine litter; and in that respect I think the reduction target in the Circular Economy Communication is sending Member States an important reminder.

Most marine litter is plastic waste, mainly plastic packaging. Only about 25% of all plastic waste is effectively recycled and nearly 50% of plastic waste is still landfilled in the EU. This is far too much.

That's why the Commission is turning its attention to the issue. We will be looking at how plastic fits in to the circular economy, and addressing issues like recycling, biodegradability, the presence of hazardous substances in plastics, and marine litter. The work has already started and the strategy will be adopted next year.

EU action can be very effective, but it's most effective when it's matched by political will in the Member States. We see this very clearly from the recent legislation we adopted on lightweight plastic carrier bags. The legislation was adopted in April 2015, and its effects are already being seen all round the Union. England and the Netherlands are the latest to bring in charges. In England, a small charge seems to be having a huge effect, with bag use falling by 80 percent in the first six months.

To tackle litter effectively, we need to look at the whole picture.

When the circular economy proposal was adopted, the Commission also proposed raising a number of recycling targets. We are trying to raise municipal waste recycling to 65% by 2030, and 75% for packaging waste for the same date. We also propose a gradual limitation of the landfilling of municipal waste to 10% by 2030, and a ban on landfilling separately collected household waste.

This will have a direct impact on littering. Member States – especially those that are lagging a bit behind – will improve their waste management and infrastructure, and citizens will be better informed.

Returning to this idea of involving all the players, let's turn our attention to the Member States.

EU law is very clear here. Member States have all signed up to an obligation to prevent litter and littering. There is a long-standing obligation to ensure that waste management is carried out without endangering human health, and the environment.

What is more recent is the change to the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive as regards lightweight plastic bags. Member States have a choice of the measures they take, but they must make a systematic effort to reduce their consumption by the end of November this year.

They can take measures to ensure that average yearly consumption of these bags does not exceed 90 lightweight bags per person by 2019 and 40 per persons by 2025, or they can simply ensure that by 2018, these bags are no longer given out free of charge.

It also falls to national authorities to decide on measures to prevent littering. In practice this is usually devolved to municipalities. This is not only about putting up litter boxes in public places. It is more important to provide the necessary infrastructure to individual households. Obviously, people will litter a lot less where easily accessible practical infrastructure is available for their use.

It's no secret that some Member States are remarkably successful in preventing littering, while others are less so. It's also clear that there is less littering in Member States and regions where well-functioning waste management systems are in place. Regular waste collection, separate collection bins and public waste collection points for glass, metal, paper, bulky rubbish and so forth make a tremendous difference.

Public bodies have an important role to play, but industry too must play along.

The packaging industry is particularly important. Let's not forget that nearly 60% of our plastic waste is packaging waste. To solve the problem, the packaging industry needs to become part of the solution.

A good start would be a serious effort from the industry to reduce “over-packaging”. There must be some of us in this room who had the experience of taking some bulky object home – perhaps a present for a loved one – and being amazed at the mismatch between the grandeur of the packaging and the  minimal size of its contents. In a nutshell: packaging is fine, vital even, when it serves a useful purpose. But superfluous packaging does not make sense.

With packaging, it must be said that we are starting from a very low baseline. Today only 25% of plastic waste and 33% of plastic packaging waste is recycled. The Commission is proposing to raise the target to 55% in 2025. Recycling plastic packaging waste is not an easy task, so that target is well below the recycling targets for other materials.

But we do need a concerted effort. Recycling should start in the design phase. Plastic products and packaging should be designed in a way that makes them easier to recycle. Dark colours should be avoided, and the chemical composition of the material should be simpler and cleaner. The plastic industry, including the packaging industry, could also take more responsibility. Engaging in separate collection systems with retailers would be a great start.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to talk to you about an essential agent of change - citizens

Citizens – Us - the end users of plastic – need to become part of the solution as well. That means involvement in clean-up and litter prevention activities, as well as separate collection at source.

Clean-up campaigns are now common in some Member States, and they are a great tool to raise awareness and involve citizens. People want to be involved, and it's especially important to include and focus on the younger generations. Good habits start young!

These have been a very useful two days. My services have been impressed by the variety of speakers reporting on the challenges that we face, and the impact of littering on our environment and our society.  I have picked up on a clear determination to address these problems adequately, through shared responsibility and cooperation, with exchanges of knowledge and good practice.

It's also been an eye-opening experience. We have heard how successful litter prevention is in some Member States, and of the difficulties elsewhere. I know that one sure ingredient for success is a functioning waste management infrastructure.  That means regular collection, separate collection, and public collection points for separable fractions. We know that adds up to less litter.

I will finish with a few words of encouragement.

Put simply, keep up the good work! Make your best practices proactively available to others, as that is the single best way to make fast progress.

There are so many good examples. But I only have time to single out one. Planet Whale from the Netherlands is a very successful SME that closes the loop, collecting plastic waste in the canals of Amsterdam, and engaging citizens to act on pollution reduction. And it is making a good profit from the sale of sustainably recycled plastics. An excellent combination of business opportunities and consumer awareness.

One final thought. Making your best practices more widespread, and addressing marine litter at source is the surest route we have to implementing the UN goals on sustainable development.

Does that sound too ambitious? I don't think so. Litter is never just litter. It is a sign of how our society functions. It is not just about clean parks and beaches. It is a reflection of the level of awareness that we have of our consumption habits.

Let's continue our efforts to make sure that, that reflection is a positive one.

Thank you once again for organising the Summit. I wish you all the best with your future activities.


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