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What the EU Can Do to Stop Marine Litter

Sep. 11/13
Seas at Risk

There is no easy way to tackle the issue of marine litter: it is complicated and has many causes, impacts and inputs. As a high percentage of marine litter comes from land based sources, EU legislation is possibly the best way to address the problem and look for solutions.

The study comes at a crucial time in the fight to tackle marine litter, with the European Commission currently focused on a wide ranging review of EU waste legislation and targets

In order to provide some concrete guidance on the potential for existing EU legislation to tackle the multitude of land based sources of marine litter items, Seas At Risk commissioned a study from the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP). Their mission was to outline which existing pieces of EU legislation could be amended to ensure a significant drop in marine litter, and whether new legislation might be required to fill gaps in the existing body of regulation.

The IEEP study “How to improve EU legislation to tackle marine litter” provides an excellent overview of EU legislation that could have an impact on the amount of waste in the marine environment. Six policy instruments in particular are identified as having a high potential level of impact: the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), the Waste Framework Directive, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, the Cosmetics Regulation, and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (the funding instrument of the Common Fisheries Policy). This is either because they are relevant to a large range of marine litter items and sources, or may have a dramatic impact in terms of reducing an important type of litter.

IEEP Study EU Legistlation to Tackle Marine LitterThe study’s main conclusion is that the basic framework for addressing this environmental problem is in place. However, several short-comings in the existing legislation were identified, most importantly the need for greater ambition in the current requirements and targets.

For example, if the Cosmetics Directive were to ban the use of micro plastics in sanitary products, this would greatly reduce the input of this damaging type of marine litter. However a full review of the scope and focus of the Directive would be needed to introduce such a ban.

Several of the analysed legal instruments could have a significant impact on the management of marine litter, but do not mention the concept of litter at all. The study recommends that the concept of litter is defined and systematically included in the Waste Framework and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. Another way to make EU legislation more effective in tacking marine litter would be to include a reference to the marine litter descriptor of the MSFD. The study also flags up a worrying implementation gap. No matter how thorough the suite of legislation to tackle marine litter, without full implementation and enforcement by Member States it can have no impact on the problem.

The study comes at a crucial time in the fight to tackle marine litter, with the European Commission currently focused on a wide ranging review of EU waste legislation and targets. The recently adopted 7th Environmental Action Plan calls for an EU wide marine litter reduction target, with a public consultation on this expected soon. Additionally, a major conference is planned for 30th September in Brussels to present the outcome of the public consultation on the Green Paper on plastic waste.

In the meantime, the Member States are busy developing their national waste prevention plans - required under the Waste Framework Directive - and are in the context of the MSFD putting together programs of measures to reduce marine litter.

Seas At Risk intends to use the study results to ensure that prevention of marine litter is high on the EU agenda.

Newman, S, Watkins, E and Farmer, A (2013) How to improve EU legislation to tackle marine litter. Institute for European Environmental Policy, London

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Photo courtesy of Rachel Domingo