Europe and Central Asia
16 Jul 2015

Reversing the tide on marine litter

Marine litter can be devastating to seabirds. Photo: Nils Moellmann, NABU
By Nils Moellmann

It’s summer time, so it’s only natural that people – especially holiday-goers – are making a beeline for coasts and beaches. But as if jostling for space with other vacationers on the beach and water wasn’t enough, there’s also marine litter to contend with. This may seem like ‘just rubbish’ to us, but for seabirds, its effects can be devastating.

To prove just how serious an issue marine litter is, some of the species threatened by this are those protected under the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives (the laws that establish nature protection for specific species and habitats across the EU). Migratory species, such as the Roseate Tern, which nest in the summer on the northern hemisphere in Europe, gather food in the garbage-filled wintering area in the Gulf of Guinea off the West African coast. Gannets on Helgoland Island in the German Bight build their nests from scraps of degraded plastic strings from ropes used by boats (e.g. shipping and fishing) and fishing gear, in which particularly chicks get entangled or worse, strangled.

The decades-old Fulmar monitoring programme in the North Sea has shown that 95% of the stomachs of dead Fulmars contain plastic, which remains undigested for a lifetime, filling their bellies like a cruel diet pill.

Local daily beach cleaning measures are not enough, as the seas are now full of litter from the sea floor to the water’s surface, and its already in the food chain.This is why combating marine litter before it reaches the sea is fundamental to ensure we can achieve ‘Good Environmental Status’ (GES) of EU Seas by 2020 as set out in the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (a legislation that binds Member States to set up national targets and actions to achieve GES).

What’s being done

In Germany, the project Fishing for Litter is run by the BirdLife partner the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) in cooperation with the fishing and public sector. The project is simple:  Fishers receive large collection bags in which they collect the garbage that gets caught in their fishing gear. They bring these back to the port, where the waste is then sorted, analysed and disposed of for free.

However, actions have to be taken to stop waste – especially for plastic bags, disposable tableware, bottle caps and cigarette butts – ending up in the sea in the first place, at the source. Prevention is the key word. To this end, NABU, together with the German Federal Environmental Agency, runs a project to identify regional preventative actions, such as developing local waste disposal infrastructures, to stop waste from entering the North Sea and Baltic Sea. Inspiration has come from similar projects around the world including from the United Nations Environment Programme, national authorities, environmental organisations and local stakeholders.  

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What more can be done

Plastic producers and equipment manufacturers have a special responsibility to reduce litter: they must invest in sustainable product design, and manufacture and promote durable products that consume fewer resources and are reusable. They must also disclose the ingredients and additives used in manufacturing. All future plastic must be recycled and be simultaneously truly biodegradable.

But you don’t need to be a factory owner to make a difference. You can start while on holiday! When you go to the beach, buy durable products that can be reused, use your own bag and avoid plastic bags at the supermarket. Also, what about picking up your waste? Lastly, since disposable takeaway causes litter in the oceans, sit down at a café and enjoy your coffee from a real cup.

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Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.