Our consumption and production patterns generate waste, a part of which ends up as litter in our oceans. Why is preventing marine litter important for the environment and the health of our seas in particular? What is Europe doing to prevent marine litter? We asked these questions to Constança Belchior, who works on marine assessments and impacts of marine litter at the European Environment Agency.

What is marine litter? How does it impact the environment?

Marine litter is the term used for solid particles of ‘waste’ found in our seas. It includes a wide range of items, such as plastic bags, PET bottles, cigarette butts, abandoned fishing gear, metal pieces, treated wood and glass. The large majority is plastic coming from land-based activities that find its way to the oceans.

Many marine species can get entangled in larger pieces of marine litter and can be injured and die from it. They can also mistake it for food and swallow it. Many sea birds, mammals and other animals are found with plastic in their stomachs, preventing them from digesting normal food.

With time, plastic items fragment into smaller pieces, some of which cannot be seen with the naked eye. Microplastics can be ingested by a wider range of smaller animals, affecting marine food-webs. Research shows that these microplastics can also attract toxic chemical pollutants to their surface, harming further the animals that ingest them. Although the links between human health and plastics entering the food chain need to be explored further, a significant share of our caloric intake comes from the sea. It could represent a risk on human health.

Marine litter is also an economic loss for coastal communities and the economic sectors dependent on the sea. A beach full of litter is understandably not very appealing to visitors.  

How much litter is there?

Recent studies bring more clarity on the magnitude of the problem. According to one estimate, 2 to 5% of the plastic generated in the world entered the world’s oceans in 2010. This corresponds to approximately five plastic bags completely filled with plastics for every 30 cm of coastline around the world. According to another estimate, more than 5 trillion pieces are floating in the world’s oceans. Only a negligible share of marine litter is recovered, mainly through beach clean ups. The rest accumulates in our seas.

And plastic particles are everywhere. I have recently sailed across the northeast Atlantic and we did random trawling for marine litter throughout the expedition. No matter how far we were from the coast, our samples had plastics along with small marine organisms every single time. The world´s oceans and seas are connected. This makes marine litter a global problem.

How can we tackle marine litter?

The short answer is that we need to prevent it from getting into the water in the first place; so tackling it at its source is essential. This means implementing better waste management on land, which builds on our growing knowledge about marine litter. However, waste management will not suffice. We need systemic and integrated solutions.

Our recently published report ‘The European environment – state and outlook 2015’ emphasises the need for more systemic and better integrated approaches to environmental problems. In this context, tackling marine litter also asks for changes to our consumption and production patterns, and which might ultimately imply changes in some daily habits and lifestyles. For example, in the case of plastic bags, we should be asking whether we need them all or if we can replace some uses with alternatives instead. Moreover, for the plastic bags and products we need or want, we have to produce them in a way we minimise their impact on the marine environment, namely by factoring in how we can reuse and recycle them better.

Unfortunately, even if Europe succeeds reducing and halting litter from entering the oceans, the marine litter problem will persist as long as efforts at regional and global level are not better coordinated and complementing each other. We also have to accept that our oceans are never going to be fully free of waste. Cleaning up what has been accumulating seems unrealistic, especially given that oceans cover almost three quarters of Earth’s surface. Moreover, there is no easy way of deciding who is responsible for marine litter and who should pay for cleaning it up. I personally believe that we have enough knowledge, technology and human innovation to reconcile with our past mistakes and create a new chapter for the oceans.

What is the European Union doing to tackle marine litter?

The key piece of legislation for the marine environment is the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. The directive aims at ensuring the protection and sustainable use of marine ecosystems in Europe’s regional seas by achieving a good environmental status by 2020. In this context, it is also the first legal instrument to that requires European Member-States to set environmental targets, monitor and implement measures to tackle marine litter.

Although marine litter is a growing environmental problem, the information base on it is still limited. The marine directive clearly requires EU Member States to monitor marine litter, which means that they need to set up data collection mechanisms and be able to report their progress towards achieving the set targets. By doing so, the directive also supports one of the objectives of the EU’s 7th Environment Action Programme, namely of combating pollution and establishing a measureable reduction target for the amount of litter entering the seas by 2020.

The EU has also various pieces of legislation on waste. A recent review process of the waste legislation has produced, among others, an assessment of the impact that dedicated policy measures for specific litter items could have on marine litter.

Other actors are also taking important measures. For example, several Regional Sea Conventions, including in the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the North-East Atlantic, are working on implementing regional actions plans for that purpose.

These efforts are best seen in the broader policy context of building a truly circular economy and of achieving long-term sustainability in Europe.

What does the EEA do on marine litter?

The European Environment Agency is a knowledge institution. We compile data from our member countries, analyse them and assess various aspects of the environment. We then use this knowledge to support European policy processes to help improve Europe´s environment.

More concretely, we are producing assessments on the marine environment, including the two briefings in SOER 2015 (marine environment and maritime activities). In the coming months, we will publish a report on the state of Europe’s seas, also looking at the pressures on marine ecosystems including marine litter. We have also developed ‘Marine LitterWatch’ – an app and a web portal to help communities monitor the litter found on beaches and share the data. Many citizens take part in clean-up activities across Europe, and we want to help these communities collect marine litter data that can be used for designing more effective policies, including the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

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Last modified: January 15, 2021