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EU Ambitious Measures Finally Adopted to Fight Plastic Pollution

image of Blue Marlin Gili Trawangan single use plastic
Ocean News

After years of advocacy for legislation to effectively and strongly reduce marine litter, Seas At Risk celebrates today the adoption of two ambitious pieces of European legislation which will pave the way for a bluer and more sustainable future.

The Directives, derived from the recently adopted European Plastics strategy, deal with two important sources of marine litter. The Revised Port Reception Facilities Directive addresses the waste from ships and fishing vessels, responsible for around 30% of current marine litter. The “Reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment” deals with single-use plastics and fishing gear.

image of single use plastics items Single-Use plastics will soon belong in the past

Billions of single-use plastic items, such as coffee cups, cigarette butts, takeaway containers, wet wipes and drinking straws are used every year in the EU and thrown away, leaking into the environment and the seas. It takes hundreds of years for these items to degrade, with dramatic consequences for the marine ecosystems and fauna. They break up into microplastics, are filtered by mussels, eaten by fish, birds and other marine species, to eventually enter our food chain.

Several single-use plastic items will be banned as of 2021: plastic straws, cutlery and plates, cotton bud sticks, stirrers, expanded polystyrene food containers and cups and oxo-degradable plastics, will soon belong in the past, paving the way for future restrictions.  

For plastic bottles, minimum collection targets have been set at the EU level, of 77% by 2025 and 90% by 2029, as well as a 30% recycled content target by 2030 to boost recycling.

To avoid inconsistencies across the EU and facilitate homogeneous implementation, NGOs supported parliamentary proposals to introduce minimum EU-wide targets by 2025. However, these did not survive the negotiations among the three European Institutions so that minimum consumption reduction targets for food containers and cups, or collection and recycling targets for fishing gear will have to be set at the national level. Seas At Risk is concerned that this leaves the door open for less ambitious national measures. 

On a more positive note and in line with Commission’s proposal, producers will be made responsible for the environmental impact of their products and cover clean-up, waste management and awareness raising costs as of 2021 (2023 for packaging and cigarette butts). This is also applicable to fishing gear, with specific requirements to develop harmonised standards at the EU level for fishing gear eco-design.

image of plastic bottleNew measures to prevent waste dumping at sea

Plastic waste from ships and fishing vessels contributes significantly to ocean pollution. The revised Port Reception Facility Directive aims to include the ambitious principles of the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships, (also known as MARPOL Convention) into EU law. These new measures will prevent ships to illegally dump garbage and waste fishing gear at sea.

In particular, a harmonisation of port fees to collect waste will be introduced at EU ports. Fishermen will be allowed to deliver waste fishing gear and other passively fished waste at no additional costs. The agreed text also includes the 100% indirect fee system, for which Seas At Risk has been advocating for years, obliging all ships to contribute to the total cost of waste delivery in ports, regardless of waste volumes delivered. This will discourage fishermen from throwing waste overboard.

A new requirement also encourages fishermen to take all reasonable precautions to prevent accidental losses of fishing gear. The impact of abandoned nets, known as “ghost fishing”, is not only a major contributor to marine plastic pollution but also represents a major threat to marine wildlife as the nets continue trapping marine animals.

To prevent paraffin pollution of the sea, specific new measures have also been adopted. Paraffin is often discharged at sea by ships through tanks washing, with major environmental and health impact, from sea mammals and birds eating paraffin wax residue to human health impacts.

The adoption of these two Directives marks a huge step in the fight against marine litter. However, this is only the beginning. Seas At Risk will now work to ensure an ambitious implementation across Europe, especially in Member States which showed most opposition to take measures. A heavy burden now lies on the shoulders of environmental Ministers, so Seas At Risk will support its members at national level to engage with all stakeholders and increase the political will.

Seas at Risk - Seas At Risk is an umbrella organisation of environmental NGOs from across Europe that promotes ambitious policies for marine protection at European and international level. As a member, Project AWARE is working alongside other Alliance members to ensure that EU governments take marine litter seriously and commit to implementing the most effective measures to tackle the problem.

Photo courtesy of Blue Marlin Dive (Gili Trawangan) and @InkaCresswell

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