Marine life can ingest plastic particles, warn environmental groups.
The plastics industry's contribution to marine waste was damaging the material's image, Antonino Furfari, managing director of industry organisation Plastics Recyclers Europe, told an environmental conference in Brussels last week.
According to a June 2016 report by event hosts Eunomia Research & Consulting, 12.2 million tonnes of plastics and rubber entered the sea each year, including 950,000 million tonnes of microplastics, mainly from vehicle tyre dust, pellets and textiles.
“Marine plastics is the ultimate bad boomerang, always coming back at us and an extremely important topic of the 21st century,” said Eunomia founder and chair Dr Dominic Hogg.
“Only atomic energy and chlorofluorocarbons were faster than plastics to transform themselves from a mind-blowing human invention into a global threat,” argued keynote speaker and Portuguese Socialist MEP Ricardo Serrão Santos.
Speaking to Plastics News Europe, Furfari said: “To tackle the problem, everything has to be put in place.
“Everyone has to take responsibility. Legislators need to see that things must work properly, and there must be a common effort to reduce marine litter.”
Furfari said it was disappointing that plastics recycling levels were low and that in any case some 64% of plastics collected were exported to Asia. “We need to look at our own behaviour and to work on legislators, education and prevention to change the system.”
Eunomia principal consultant Dr Chris Sherrington agreed that legislation, particularly at EU level, was important: “The alternatives, a gentle nudge to member states or voluntary agreements, are just not good enough.”
Dr Sherrington explained how difficult it was to measure the cost of marine litter to industry and to the environment: “We can calculate the damage caused by bad air quality and the price of cleaning up terrestrial litter, but what is the cost of plankton eating marine plastics?”
Emma Priestland, marine litter policy officer at Seas at Risk – the umbrella organisation of environmental non-governmental organisations dealing with the marine environment – argued cost-benefit analyses were an excuse to avoid action needed to tackle the problem: “We need to look at what we do. Why are there so many single use items on the market for example?”
She said legislators and industry were making efforts to change, welcoming the plastic bag charge and April 2015 (EU) directive reducing the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags for making people “more open to economic instruments like plastic bottle deposit schemes.”
Today there are no binding, quantitative targets for European countries to reduce marine litter. But Anne-France Woestyn, policy officer at the European Commission's directorate-general for maritime affairs and fisheries, said: “Major EU initiatives, both current and in prospect, aim to reduce marine plastics, with a roadmap for the 2017 plastics strategy due very soon.”
Woestyn also singled out the EU's ‘circular economy' package of policies and accompanying waste proposals, the ongoing revision of the EU directive for port reception facilities for ship-generated waste, and cargo residues and support to marine litter research projects.