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Marine Littering: Let’s Bag It

Submitted by on 15 Apr 2014 – 15:58

By Rebecca Harms Rebecca Harms MEP, President of the Greens/EFA Group 

I come from the German region of Lower Saxony which has a long beautiful coastline and several islands in the North Sea. When we think of marine littering, pictures from far away places in the Pacific or Indian Ocean come to mind. But you don’t need to go that far to observe the consequences of plastic waste that is being dumped into the seas and oceans.Plastic does not decompose in the environment and will float in our seas and oceans for decades and centuries. It breaks down into small pieces and is swallowed by marine animals. It is devastating to hear that for example 94% of some bird species living in the North Sea hold plastic in their stomachs. The birds might starve to death with full stomachs or get weak and vulnerable to diseases. Animals also get caught in discarded plastic waste and die.

Marine littering also causes additional costs for the local fishermen as their nets get damaged by the waste. And plastic pollution on the beaches of the North Sea coast causes problems for the tourism in the area. Last but not least the clean-up creates considerable costs for local communities.

The environment ministry of Lower Saxony recently started the programme “Fishing for litter” together with the fishermen of the region. The fishermen collect the trash that gets caught in their nets and bring it to the shore and the regional government pays for the disposal of the waste. This is a great initiative, but it can only have a small impact considering the scale of the problem. It can only be a first step. Much more decisive action is necessary to stop the litter pollution.

Marine littering is an enormous problem, not only in my home region. Every year about 10 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the marine environment and cause tremendous problems.

Though plastic bags only make up a fraction of the plastic waste in the oceans, the numbers are still staggering. In the EU we use nearly 100 billion plastic bags every year. 89% are single-use bags and around 8 billion plastic bags end up in our nature and oceans each year.

While some Member States like Denmark and Finland have taken action and have reduced consumption to as little as four bags per person per year, in other countries little has been done to decrease plastic bag consumption and 450 single use plastic bags are used per person every year.  Though Germany lies with the yearly consumption of approximately 70 bags per person well below EU average, there still is a lot of room for improvement. The differences are astonishing, but they also show that ambitious policies to reduce the use of plastic bags can be extremely effective, without causing major inconveniences for citizens.

Regardless of the different levels of consumption, single-use plastic bags are a common problem to all EU member states, and we therefore need a common EU approach. It is good that the Commission brought forward a proposal to reduce the use of plastic bags. Sadly the Commission did not propose any reduction targets or binding measures. The proposal is currently being discussed in the European Parliament. My Danish green colleague Margrete Auken MEP is the rapporteur on this file and she is suggesting an 80% reduction target and mandatory charging.

Making consumers pay for their carrier bags has proven very effective, for example in Ireland. Here plastic bag consumption dropped by 90% after a charge was introduced.

There are many alternatives available for single use plastic bags like reusable bags made out of fabric, backpacks or shopping baskets.

Single-use plastic bags are a clear example of our unsustainable consumer-society where we throw away rather than reuse or recycle. Littering is not the only problem caused by this thoughtless approach. The production of the bags and other package waste uses resources and energy and in the end the plastic waste fills our waste dumps.

We need to re-think our consumption patterns in general. We need to avoid unnecessary resource use and focus on reducing and avoiding unnecessary packaging and rather re-use and re-cycle materials and products than throwing them away. Getting rid of the enormous amount of unnecessary single use plastic bags can only be the beginning. By reducing plastic waste we can save energy and resources and protect the environment without asking too much from consumers. So what are we waiting for?