The Plastics Strategy - a good tool for reducing marine litter
Shortly after the European Commission's Plastics Strategy was presented, the Baltic Sea Centre sent a letter to all EU ministers of environment around the Baltic Sea. Policy Officer Hanna Sjölund explains why.
Text: Henrik Hamrén
– We have sent a letter to the ministers of environment in the eight EU member states around the Baltic Sea. The reason is that Environment Council takes place on 5 March where the ministers are to discuss the Plastics Strategy, and we particularly want to raise the issue of marine litter in the Baltic Sea, says Hanna Sjölund.
We urge the Baltic Sea countries to take advantage of this opportunity and push for strong measures.
Why do you focus on that particular issue?
– The increasing amount of plastic litter in the marine environment is a major and growing problem. At the same time, we see that the Plastics Strategy offers great opportunities to reduce marine litter in the Baltic Sea. It would be a shame not to take advantage of them. Therefore, we urge the Baltic Sea countries to take advantage of this opportunity and push for strong measures.
What measures do you propose?
– We choose to focus on three specific issues that are addressed in the strategy: single-use plastics, intentionally added microplastics and chemical additives in plastics. All three of them contribute to marine litter, and are important to regulate in order to have a safer marine environment.
There are numerous major sources for plastic litter. Why these three?
– It is true that there are many other sources. Particles from car tyre wear are, for example, a big source, which has to be addressed. But this time we want to focus on the additive aspect and biodegradability, which are important parts of the Plastics Strategy.
Why is that?
– Even if we limit the littering through increased recycling, plastic litter will still always enter the environment. Therefore, it is also important to do something about the degradability, and the substances of concern, and prevent these substances from entering the environment via the plastics.
What does intentionally added microplastics mean?
– It applies, for instance, to various cosmetics, creams and other skincare products, to which microplastics are added to give the products different properties. Such as giving it a certain texture or a scrubbing effect. After use, these microplastics can end up in the sea.
It really doesn’t matter what material the particles are made of, the important thing is if they are actually biodegradable or not.
How can one prevent that from happening?
– The Commission has requested the European Chemicals Agency, ECHA, to investigate the possibility of banning all products with intentionally added microplastics. And then they really mean all products! If such a restriction is then proposed, it is important that the proposal is clear. Our main message is that it really doesn’t matter what material the particles are made of, the important thing is if they are actually biodegradable or not.
Regarding single-use plastics, there is already much talk about using less and recycling more. Isn’t that enough?
– In the letter we highlight an important aspect; namely that so-called “biodegradable” plastics is currently a relative concept. Many of the plastics that today are considered to be degradable in the environment, break down considerably slower in the cold, dark and brackish waters of the Baltic Sea compared to, for instance, the Mediterranean's salty, hot and warm waters. When our environmental ministers negotiate which types of plastics are allowed to be used to make single-use plastics, it's important that they know their local environment and how different plastics degrade here.
It should be made sure that the use of substances of concern is limited from the beginning, already when the plastic is manufactured.
The last thing you mention is chemical additives. How should the ministers act on that issue?
– Plastic production uses a wide range of chemical additives – everything from colours to substances that make the plastic hard or soft. Some of these become problematic when the plastics end up in the environment or are being recycled. The vision in the Plastics Strategy is to phase out such problematic substances. But the proposals in the strategy focus mainly on the recycling process, that is, finding ways to isolate and remove those substances when the plastics are recycled. Our message is that it should be made sure that the use of substances of concern is limited from the beginning, already when the plastic is manufactured.