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Empowering Our Communities To Redesign

How much plastic litter is currently in EU waters?

Nobody knows. In fact, marine litter in European waters is not only of European origin, it stems from any other place in the world where trash is dumped into the sea.

What we know is that marine litter is an increasing threat to the health of European and global marine ecosystems, with costly environmental, economic and social consequences. We have all seen the pictures of seabirds, whales, fish, etc with their stomachs full of plastics and other human creations (1). The issue is serious, the gravity of the consequences impossible to know for now.

Plastics account for 50 to 80 per cent of marine litter (2), with macro-debris on the sea floor, floating litter and beach debris, and increasing concern about the accumulation of microscopic pieces of plastic in the environment, potentially down to the nanoparticle scale. Among the most problematic litter is lost or discarded fishing gear, which may continue to fish for years afterwards – a phenomenon known as ‘ghost fishing’ – resulting in the mortality of marine mammals, turtles, birds and fishes.

The impact is not only environmental and health related, it is also socio-economic; studies prove how marine litter deters tourism (3) and costs lots of money to coastal municipalities. More concretely UK municipalities spend €18 million a year removing beach litter, Belgium and Netherlands aprox €10,4 million a year (4).

Where does marine litter come from?

Globally it originates mainly from land-based source (80%) but in areas such as the North Sea the proportion coming from shipping is closer to 40%. Ocean-based sources of marine litter include shipping, recreational boating, the fishing industry, and offshore oil and gas platforms, with litter entering the sea through both accidental and deliberate discharges of things ranging galley waste to cargo containers.


Water flows and doesn’t stop at national borders, so does the litter that comes with it. Hence, marine litter is a global problem that should be treated at global level. There are several pieces of international legislation specifically designed to reduce marine litter and prevent the discharge of waste into the marine environment, namely:

United Nations Convention on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS);
International Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Ships (MARPOL);
London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter;
Convention on Biological Diversity; and
Agenda 21: the United Nations Programme of Action, Johannesburg Plan of Action and the Rio+20 ‘Future we Want’ outcomes.

At EU level there are a good number of EU laws which indirectly tackle the issue of marine litter, mainly:

Directive on Port Reception Facilities for ship-generated waste and cargo residues (2000/59/EC), which aims to reduce the amount of pollution in seas and coastlines of Member States caused by waste and cargo residues discharged into the sea by shipping.
Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) (2008/56/EC) which is the only piece of legislation specially designed to protect and restore the marine environment and which requires Member States to reduce marine litter.

Then there are many EU laws indirectly related to marine litter; Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) (Regulation (EC) No 2371/2002) and the Fisheries Control Regulation (Regulation (EC) No 1224/2009), Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC), Shellfish Waters Directive (2006/113/EC), Bathing Water Directive (2006/7/EC), the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC), Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC), Directive on the Landfill of Waste (1999/31/EC), Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (1994/62/EC), Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC), Batteries Directive (2006/66/EC), Directive on End-of-Life Vehicles (2000/53/EC), Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) (2002/96/EC), Cosmetics Directive (2011/84/EU), Directive on environmental liability (2004/35/EC) and the Industrial Emissions Directive (2010/75/EU).

However, it is clear that if we look at the amounts of litter present in our seas all this amazing range of legislation is either insufficient or innefficient. Plastic continues to pollute flora and fauna, enter our food-chain and endanger the future of our children at ever increasing rates…

What can we do?

The first thing, before even tackling the unknown amount of pollution in the seas, is stop the main source of pollution from entering the oceans. That is mainly single-use disposable plastics. Most laws don’t take into account the real environmental and health costs associated to plastic pollution in the oceans, if these costs would be taken into account –and charged to the by the producers- we would probably see a change in they way packaging works today.

So, first thing; if we reduce the consumption of single-use plastics (bottles, plastic-bags…) it will be a major step to improve the situation. This can start at a personal level or collectively by uniting to highlight the problem to the big corporations responsible for single-use packaging. See this action to Ride the Plastic Wave as an idea.

Second thing; implement proper producer responsibility measures so that the real cost of littering is added to the cost of packaging. Plus, optimise waste collection in a way that it is ensured that all waste is properly collected and take-back schemes are in place.

Thirdly, once we have stopped plastic litter we can start cleaning the mess created so far. The Let’sDoIt movement has been organising actions around the world to clean other people’s mess, soon there will be a cleaning day for the mediterranean. This is a good way to highlight a problem but remember that most of the waste is not at the shore but either floating in the ocean of sank on the seabed…

To sum-up

All life in our planet was born in the oceans, the same oceans that we are now polluting with our man-made products. The stress we are inflicting onto sea life is huge and the implications of the consequences unknown.

However, the solution is at hand; the Zero Waste strategy once again makes environmental, social and economic sense for the near future. Re-designing the society is part of our duty and most single-use items should have no place in a Zero Waste sustainable world.



For more info about marine litter in Europe visit:
Other references:,,

(1)    Katsanevakis, 2008
(2)    Barnes et al, 2009
(3)    Balance et al, 2000
(4)    Mouat et al, 2010

Looking for solutions to single-use coffee-capsules

Since the invention of coffee-capsules we have seen how this potentially recyclable item was filling up more and more waste bins. In places where waste separation is at highest levels -particularly some Zero Waste municipalities in Italy. we have seen how coffee-capsules represent a significant amount of the residual waste -what cannot be or is not recycled or composted-.

To know more about the problem of the coffee capsules you can see a previous post here. Since then the Zero Waste Research Center in Capannori has been working to find solutions to this problem and reduce even more the size of the waste bin. In order to have an open debate on the issue it has organised a national meeting in which the most important coffee producers and distributors will gather in Capannori on March 22 and 23 to discuss alternatives.

In this event there will be a coffee tasting of coffee produced with different systems and a round table with Kompresso srl, ETI srl, IMS spa, Goglio spa, COOP Italia and Illy Cafe.

We will publish a report with the results of the meeting.

ZW meeting cafe

Potocnik: “Zero Waste is the right aspiration”

Potocnik & Irons

More than two hundred people including members of the European Parliament, mayors and local decision-makers, European Commission, the European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik and the famous actor Jeremy Irons participated in the first Zero Waste Europe conference in the European Parliament on March 7.

“Zero waste might be an ambitious goal in our highly industrialised societies; but it is the right aspiration” said commissioner Potocnik talking a packed room. Reaffirming the commitment of the Commission to phase out landfilling and burning of recyclable waste by 2020. “No new landfills should be built in Europe (…) incineration is not optimal in the mid term” continued the Commissioner who warned that member states should be careful with building incineration overcapacity.

“In order to meet the objectives of the Resource Efficiency Roadmap the EU will have to reduce disposal and increase recycling at 5% annual rate until 2020. This is a major leap forward that cannot be achieved with the current legal framework.” said Joan Marc Simon, executive director of Zero Waste Europe. “Eurostat shows how recycling is stagnating in Europe and incineration is going up; we need to change the drivers if we don’t want the EU to waste one more decade”.

Jumping  from recycling rates of 20% to 80% in a short period of time is perfectly  possible when there is the political will and the implication of the citizens. This is what the experience from Capannori, first Zero Waste town in Europe, and the province of Gipuzkoa proved with concrete practical zero waste experiences.


Recycling stagnates in the EU – lesson for EU waste & resource policy?

Sad news for the European Union; 2011 statistics show how despite the economic downturn and the decrease in consumption waste generation stays stable, recycling and composting stagnate and so does disposal – in 2011 the EU continued to burn and bury 60% of the waste and recycle and compost 40%.

This is expecially sad when the European Commission warns of all the untapped economic and environmental benefits associated to proper implementation of EU waste legislation -it would save €72 billion a year, increase the annual turnover of the EU waste management and recycling sector by €42 billion and create over 400,000 jobs by 2020-.

Is EU waste legislation working?

It is a fact that since the approval of the new Waste Framework Directive in 2008 recycling has not gone up in the EU. One must take into account that transposition of EU law to national laws delayed the implementation but it is also true that in most countries not much has changed with the new law. Despite the binding waste hierarchy, the recycling targets, waste prevention plans, etc the market incentives don’t seem to work to steer waste to recycling plants. Incineration in Europe increased and so did export of valuable waste such as WEEE…

Recently the European Commission noted the importance of using economic and legal instruments to steer waste away from disposal however the waste-related economic instruments at EU level continue to reward disposal instead of recycling. If we look at the economic incentives in the EU we see how one should not be surprised when recycling stagnates and incineration goes up.

Economic incentives energy generation vs energy savings

So, in order for the EU to increase recycling the first thing that should be done is phase-out harmful subsidies and at least create a level playing field between prevention + reuse + recycling and incineration + landfill. Regulating the incineration overcapacity in the EU would also help make recycling more atractive.

Secondly it should start promoting legal and economic incentives such as landfill bans, bans on incineration of recyclable waste, obligation to separately collect bio-waste, pay-as-you-throw schemes and taxation on toxic or less sustainable waste (low durability, repairability, recyclability, biodegradability, etc).

Thirdly, adopt clear and ambitious waste reduction, reuse and recycling targets by concrete waste streams with policy instruments to make them possible.

Finally, lay the necessary ground for innovation in the use of resources and materials so that toxics are minimised and the technical cycle (recycling) is separated from the biological cycle (composting).

In 2012 the European Commission and the European Parliament adopted the following text on the Resource Efficiency Roadmap:

By 2020, waste is managed as a resource. Waste generated per capita is in absolute decline. Recycling and re-use of waste are economically attractive options for public and private actors due to widespread separate collection and the development of functional markets for secondary raw materials. More materials, including materials having a significant impact on the environment and critical raw materials, are recycled. Waste legislation is fully implemented. Illegal shipments of waste have been eradicated. Energy recovery is limited to non recyclable materials, landfilling is virtually eliminated and high quality recycling is ensured.

The Resource Efficiency Roadmap is very much inline with our view of a Zero Waste Europe but we must remember that 2020 is in 7 years time and if the EU doesn’t radically change its waste & resource policy in 2014-2015 the resource efficiency objectives can not be met. And we Europeans cannot afford to send to waste all the potential job creation, economic activity and financial savings associated to a Zero Waste Europe.

2011 Waste treatment statistics EU