Tackling marine litter


Our seas and oceans are increasingly becoming the waste dump of the planet. Man-made litter is contaminating marine habitats and posing serious environmental, economic and health problems. A new Commission policy paper aims to raise awareness of the problem and to stimulate debate on ways to tackle it.

" Over 180 species of marine wildlife swallow micro pieces of plastic, believing it to be food "

Marine litter is the result of a wide range of land and sea-based activities and sources. That very diversity, along with insufficient knowledge and data of the many facets of the phenomenon, increases the complexity of finding appropriate responses.

This litter can be plastic, metal, wood, rubber, glass or paper. It is estimated that some 15% of marine debris floats on the sea surface, the same amount remains in the water column and 70% rests on the seabed. Plastic is the most prominent and pernicious example. In some areas, it accounts for 80% of the litter and can remain in the marine environment for possibly as long as hundreds of years.

The environmental impact of this debris is considerable. Over 180 species of marine wildlife swallow micro pieces of plastic, believing it to be food, leading to internal injuries and possibly death. Many marine animals, including whales, seals, turtles and fish, are harmed and even killed when they become tangled in marine litter.

There are economic costs for the fishing industry, either through catches being contaminated by paint or oil or propellers being fouled by abandoned nets. Marine debris can also affect human health and safety either by contaminating food, degrading water quality or washing hazardous materials such as medical waste onto beaches.

Strong commitments to tackle problem

The Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 agreed a firm pledge ‘to take action to, by 2025, based on collected scientific data, achieve significant reductions in marine debris to prevent harm to the coastal and marine environment’. The Commission is currently preparing proposals on the follow-up of the Rio Conference.

Way ahead

The Commission is helping Member States to meet their obligations under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, particularly in their initial assessments and setting environmental targets. This should make it possible to develop an EU baseline in 2013 to have further reflections about an EU-wide reduction target.

Member States need to put in place monitoring programmes by July 2014 and implement their marine strategies by 2015. The Commission will analyse these and make recommendations if national authorities are not taking adequate action.

These many different strands of the anti-marine litter efforts are preparing the ground for a major conference in Germany in April 2013, which will provide Member States with examples of practical measures to tackle the phenomenon.

This is in addition to the work on marine litter under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which requires Member States to develop and implement strategies to ensure all the EU’s marine regions and sub-regions achieve good environmental status by 2020. The Directive is also the environmental pillar of the Integrated Maritime Policy that looks to maximise sustainable use of the sea.

By its nature, marine litter requires international action and the EU is working closely with its neighbours in the four conventions covering the Mediterranean, Baltic, North-East Atlantic and Black Sea. These help implement the UNEP Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities.

Within the EU, a wide range of policies and measures addresses the source and impact of marine litter. They include legislation on waste management, urban wastewater and pollution from ships. Since 80% of marine litter comes from the land, proper treatment of waste and better implementation of the measures on the statute book can make a major contribution to improving the quality of our seas. So too could changes in packaging practices, given the amount of plastic used.

Additional measures

Alongside direct measures to reduce marine litter, initiatives are being taken to improve the knowledge base and increase awareness. These also bring together the main players such as policy makers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the science community and industry – all have a contribution to make since many stakeholders are responsible for the generation and distribution of waste.

The Commission has launched three studies – expected to be concluded in early 2013 – to better understand the scale of the problem and its sources. Two examine the feasibility of introducing measures to prevent littering and the main loopholes in the flow of packaging material. The third contains case studies on the plastic cycle in Europe’s four regional seas.

Funding from the Union’s 7th Research Framework Programme is helping to finance various projects including those in a programme called ‘The Ocean of Tomorrow’, which in 2012 focused on research gaps in the definition and monitoring of the good environment status of EU waters. The European Environment Agency is also preparing a report on the state of Europe’s coasts. This will include an assessment of the scale of marine litter at European and regional levels.

In addition to reducing the input of plastic into our seas, efforts are needed to clean up the mess that already exists. The Commission is promoting various Fishing For Litter initiatives. As well as bringing practical benefits, these also spread the message to the public. An annual European Clean-up Day is also being considered.


Water, marine and coast