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Preventing pollution and reducing hazardous substances in the Baltic Sea

  • 21 Sep 2022
Panorama - Stories from Regional and urban policy
The European Union Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region supports the reduction of hazardous substances in the Baltic Sea, one of the most polluted areas in the world.
Preventing pollution and reducing hazardous substances in the Baltic Sea

The Baltic Sea is one of the most polluted areas in the world, which threatens the quality of life for inhabitants of all countries around it. Man-made chemicals and heavy metals enter the Baltic Sea via numerous sources, including from wastewater treatment plants, leaching from household materials, leaching from waste deposits, and atmospheric depositions from industrial plant emissions.

The European Union Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR) includes a section on Policy Area Hazards. According to the EUSBSR Action Plan: ‘PA Hazards supports and promotes macro-regional responses to global challenges related to chemicals management, sound chemical management and a better linkage to international policy agendas (such as climate change, biodiversity, agriculture, production and consumption).

The PA works for the prevention of pollution and the reduction of the use of hazardous substances as well as for mitigation and remediation of historic pollution in the Baltic Sea environment. PA Hazards assists stakeholders in the projects or other initiatives for the development of measures and solutions in the field.’

The PA supports the development of suitable measures, practical solutions and policy recommendations for the reduction of hazardous substances. The topic is linked to the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission Expert Group on Hazardous Substances. The Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, known as the Helsinki Commission or HELCOM, is an intergovernmental organisation, a regional platform for environmental policymaking established in 1974 to protect the marine environment of the Baltic Sea from all sources of pollution.

Lotta Ruokanen and Owen Rowe from HELCOM say the Baltic Sea’s condition and the necessary measures being taken to protect it are in line with the EUSBSR and its key objectives: saving the sea, connecting the region and increasing prosperity.

Tackling key priorities

The biggest challenge in fighting pollution in the Baltic Sea is to understand the extensive and diverse pool of substances in the environment, how they enter the environment, their impact on the environment (including mixed or multiple impacts) and how to minimise those.

Key priorities in this area  tackle areas such as the number of chemicals in use and their lifecycle, potential toxicity, pathways into the environment, possible alternatives to these substances, better information on appropriate recycling and disposal.

Achievements in the environmental protection of the Baltic Sea

The Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP), adopted by HELCOM in 2007 and updated in 2021, is its strategic programme of measures and actions for achieving the good environmental status of the sea. One of the goals of the BSAP is a ‘Baltic Sea unaffected by hazardous substances and litter’.

The BSAP has resulted in several environmental improvements such as a reduction in nutrient inputs to the sea, a better state of biodiversity and a decrease in maritime incidents and spills. It incorporates the latest scientific knowledge and innovative management approaches into strategic policy implementation and stimulates goal-oriented multilateral cooperation around the Baltic Sea region.

As of 1 September 2022, about 33 % of the joint regional actions (90 out of 273) and 7 % of the national actions (29 out of 428) from the Baltic Sea Action Plan have been reported as fully implemented by all of HELCOM’s Contracting Parties. In addition to specific actions, the Contracting Parties also agreed to implement several HELCOM recommendations in support of the BSAP.

Among the main achievements we can also underline:

  • Identification and monitoring of certain key substances (but a relatively small number considering the array in the environment);
  • Management and reduction of many of these key substances (though many are persistent and although not increasing any longer, still persist);
  • Initial screening to evaluate the emerging issues that may exist has recently started.


The future of protecting the Baltic Sea from hazardous substances – new technologies, innovations, general education

There is a common agreement that the damage caused to the Baltic Sea needs fixing. Simultaneously, all efforts must prevent further harm. The goal is ambitious and long-term. Although a lot is still to be done, the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea tirelessly join forces to face the challenge for a cleaner, safer and healthier sea.

First of all, a transparent overview of substances used in industry and consumer products that may enter the environment (at the production end, during use and from screening in the environment) should be established.

Secondly, new strong legislation and economic incentives, including the removal of harmful subsidies to remove or replace groups of substances of risk/harm from products and processes, have to be introduced.

Furthermore, innovations in various fields raise high hopes for change. New solutions removing or replacing (preferably groups of) substances of risk/harm from products and processes are being explored, especially those that improve wastewater treatment plants (technological and application) and in particular focus on pharmaceuticals, as these are commonly not as easy to replace/ban due to human health aspects.

Finally, there is a general need for clearer guidance and education on recycling and disposal for consumers, companies and public administration. Public procurement is a very big part of product and substance flows in society. But more importantly, the recycling process at the local, regional, and national levels should be clarified to help understand the process, including its role and impact.


➤ Article by Małgorzata Matkowska and Rafał Rolka of the Let’s communicate! Project (Interreg BSR 2014-2020). The article has been edited for concision and clarity.