Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI)

Turning tides: With more than 150 million tonnes of plastic still existing in the oceans today and an estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes entering the ocean annually, causing harm to marine life as well as human health, how can the EU and Member States simultaneously prevent further plastic waste polluting the ocean whilst ensuring the sustainable restoration of marine ecosystems?

By: Gabriele Rimkute (IE)

Topic video

The Problem with Ocean Plastic, Canadian Geographic

The topic at a glance

Around the time plastic first made its way onto the shelves of supermarkets, there were 2.5 billion people on Earth and the global production of plastic was 1.5 million tonnes. Today there are more than 7 billion people and plastic production exceeds 300 million tonnes annually. If this rapid growth continues, additional 33 billion tonnes of plastic will have accumulated around the planet by 2050. With the increase of consumption and global standard of living, the amount of plastic produced, used and simply thrown away has skyrocketed.
The presence of marine litter in birds, turtles and mammals is well documented. A recent comprehensive review revealed that marine litter was discovered in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabirds. Swallowing or getting caught in the rubbish represents only one aspect of a problem nowadays. Organisms at every level, living on the seabed or in the water column, can be affected. Apart from the physical risk from plastic, there is also concern with the threat of the ingestion of hazardous chemicals in the plastic. The ability of plastic particles in the ocean to attract organic chemicals that do not dissolve, including many toxic substances, leading to a raised number of studies looking at plastics as a source of toxic chemicals in marine organisms. It creates a great concern of how eating the food from sea affects the health of the people.

Topic dictionary

Marine Litter: a range of materials which have been deliberately discarded, or accidentally lost on shore or at sea. It includes materials that are carried out to sea from land, rivers, drainage and sewerage systems, or the wind.
Single-Use Plastic: goods that are made primarily from fossil fuel based chemicals and are meant to be disposed of right after one use. They are most commonly used for packaging and service ware, such as bottles, wrappers, straws, and bags.
Microplastics: extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment, resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste.
Marine Life: the plants, animals and other organisms that live in the sea or ocean.
Circular Economy: a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible, extending the life cycle of products.

Key actors

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system, and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment.
The Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML) is a multi-stakeholder partnership that brings together all actors working to prevent marine litter and microplastics. It was launched at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012.
The European Commission (EC) is an executive body of the European Union (EU) that has implemented many directives and strategies to help reduce the amount of plastic that enters our oceans. European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius heads the Directorate-General for the Environment (DG ENV) and is responsible for promoting plastic-free oceans and proper implementation of legislation on plastics, particularly microplastics among other things.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) is an EU agency, whose task is to provide information on the environment. The EEA aims to support sustainable development by helping to achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe’s environment, through the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information to policy making agents and the public.
Member States have a duty to follow laws put in by the European Parliament (EP). Some have taken further steps and implemented their own regulations, such as Spain where in June of this year the Cabinet approved a draft law which will introduce a tax on plastic waste that requires payment of 45 cents per kilogram of plastic packaging. Germany, on the other hand, has decided to focus on recycling packaging waste where over two-thirds ended up being recycled, but this has shown a 17.9% increase in the consumption of plastic packaging since 2010.
The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit foundation with more than 90 engineers, researchers, scientists and computational modellers working daily to rid the world’s oceans of plastic.
Clean Coasts is an Irish based programme that works with communities to help protect and care for Ireland’s waterways and marine life. They organise hundreds of beach clean-ups annually, work with thousands of volunteers who remove large quantities of marine litter from the Irish coastline and promote and facilitate coastal clean-ups and marine litter surveys. Clean Coasts also operate several international campaigns such as #2minutebeachclean and Beat the Microbead.

Measures already in place

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) requires Member States to ensure properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment by 2020. However, on the 25th of June, there was a report published explaining that Member States will not achieve the Good Environmental Status, which they were legally required to do across all their marine waters. 
The European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy is transforming the way plastic products are designed, used, produced and recycled in the EU. In 2018, as stated in the strategy, the EC put forward a legislative proposal seeking to address the issue of marine litter from plastics. The proposal focuses on the top ten single-use plastics items found on beaches, which accounts for 43% of total marine litter, as well as on fishing gear which accounts for a further 27% of all marine litter. After completion of the legislative procedure, the final act was signed in 2019 and published one week later in the EU Official Journal. 
Directive (EU) 2015/720 was brought in 2019 by the European Parliament and European Council in regard to reducing the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags. By the end of 2021, the EC will present a report to the EP and to the European Council assessing the effectiveness of the measures taken by Member States in combating littering, changing consumer behaviour and promoting waste prevention. In this report the EC will also take into account the implementation measures taken by Member States under the Single-Use Plastics Directive. 

Key conflicts

There are numerous problems and threats caused directly and indirectly by marine litter, including social, economic and environmental impacts. These impacts are diverse and usually interconnected and are therefore harder to tackle separately. Despite this, our overall understanding of these issues is limited in some areas, particularly the indirect and socio-economic effects of marine litter.


A lot of marine litter comes from human behaviour, whether accidental or intentional. The greatest sources of it are land-based activities, such as the littering of beaches, tourism, recreational use of the coasts and fishing industry activities. Storm-related events, such as floods, flush the resulting waste out to sea where it sinks to the bottom or is carried on ocean currents. The major sea-based sources include abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear, shipping activities and legal and illegal dumping.


This extensive issue can and it is causing serious economic losses. Coastal communities are facing increased expenditure on beach cleaning and waste disposal. The tourism sector has to deal with the loss of income and bad publicity. The shipping industry is impacted by higher costs associated with fouled propellers and damaged engines, removing litter and managing waste in harbours. The fishing industry faces reduced and lost catch, damaged nets and other fishing gear, fouled propellers and contamination.


Marine litter can additionally result in a huge loss of biodiversity. For example, discarded, lost, or abandoned fishing gear are continuing to fish and trap animals. This is known as ‘ghost fishing, it entangles and kills marine life, smothering habitat and acting as a hazard to navigation. Microplastics are also raising concerns. Toxins including DDT, BPA and pesticides are sick to these tiny particles of plastics that can be accidentally ingested by small aquatic organisms. Once ingested, the toxins biomagnify as they move up the food chain, ending up in birds, sea life and possibly humans.

What is next?

In relation to the MSFD report, Hans Bruyninckx, the Executive Director of the EEA, said “Our seas and marine ecosystems are suffering as a result of years of severe over-exploitation and neglect. We may soon reach a point of no return.” However, he believes that there is still a chance to restore our marine ecosystems if the EU acts decisively, coherently and strikes a sustainable balance between the way we use our seas and our impact on the marine environment. The MSFD must be reviewed by mid-2023 and where necessary, amendments will be proposed.
Member States have until 3 July 2021 to transpose the single-use plastic ban into national law. The Directive aims to, by 2030, reduce marine litter on EU beaches by about a quarter, avoid the emission of 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, avoid environmental damages which would cost the equivalent of €22 billion and save consumers a projected €6.5 billion.
In 2018 UNEP published a report about the legal limits on single-use plastics and microplastics. The report provides a global overview of what progress each country has made in passing laws that limit the manufacture, import, sale, use and disposal of selected single-use plastics and microplastics which have had a huge impact in the production of marine litter. It mentions laws and regulations that some EU Member States are stating to and are in the middle of implementing.

Key questions

  • Why does so much of the plastic that we use end up in our oceans?
  • How can the EU make the switch from plastic to reusable materials such as metal, glass or paper?
  • What measures should the EU and its Member States implement to tackle throwing away so much of the plastic in the oceans?
  • Who is most affected by the results of marine litter? Which of these is affected the most by marine litter, the environment, public health or food safety?

Links for further research:

A Whale’s Tale, CBC Kids
What really happens to the plastic you throw away, Ted-Ed
A Plastic Ocean, Craig Leeson
Ocean Plastics, Clean Coasts
Our Oceans, Seas and Coasts, European Commission