Committee on Fisheries
Always a Bigger Fish: With rising levels of plastics and microplastics in the ocean finding their way into the food pyramid, how should European waters be kept clean from this pollution, to protect marine life and ensure human wellbeing.
The Topic in Depth
written by Sander Wagemans (NL)
While plastics are instrumental to our everyday life, they come with significant downsides. Although the EU has agreed to ban single use plastics by July 2021 - a celebrated decision - the plastic crisis is far from over. It is estimated that over 5 trillion plastic particles are floating in the oceans today and will remain there indefinitely. These particles, or microplastics, are consumed by marine species and, as a result, end up in our food chain. Small organisms can consume but not process the microplastics, and as these smaller fish get eaten by fish higher up the food chain, the amount of plastics build up. As marine litter breaks up and fish consume the plastics, certain toxic chemicals can be released. Furthermore, these microplastics can serve as a base where diseases can grow and spread. As they move up the food chain, the concentration increases until they finally reach us, which is problematic considering that over 1 billion people worldwide rely on fish as their source of food. The effect of microplastics on human health remains understudied, however, plastic and plastic additives can create a risk for human health.
Besides the dangers humans face from consuming fish contaminated by plastics, we also have to consider the wellbeing of the marine ecosystem. With the oceans being one of the great climate regulators, changes to its ecosystem due to plastic pollution could have unforeseen consequences to ocean life and carbon storage, ultimately affecting climate change.
320 million tonnes of plastic are being produced every year worldwide, as it is a critical resource that we depend on for various uses. Plastic packaging improves the shelf life and safety of food products, it's lightweight, durable, and reusable. Plastics in technology or construction can bring down prices and last a lifetime. However, this durability can be an issue when the plastic cannot be recycled or reused. Producers tend to choose cheaper, non-biodegradable or hard to recycle plastics when more sustainable alternatives exist, while consumers are drawn to low-price packaging. Moreover, certain plastics such as food packaging have to meet standards that make it harder to recycle. Although 41.5% of plastics are recycled, the majority of the plastic waste is incinerated or ends up in landfills. Incineration produces carbon emissions, landfills introduce plastic to the environment and eventually to the ocean, and even recycling commonly produces low value products.
However, producers, consumers and processors still operate within the rule of law. The EU has set standards and goals on recycling, plastic waste collection, marine preservation and ecosystem conservation but there are still large differences between Member States. The Single-use Plastic Directive or information from the European Environment Agency, for example, push sustainable development, but we lack pull factors that incentivise the plastic industry to innovate towards a more sustainable industry. The Directive and the strategy for plastic in a circular economy push producers and consumers to improve their behaviour and force them away from the current business model. Access to fully biodegradable plastic or standardisation for example makes it more attractive for producers and consumers to be pulled into a more sustainable plastic industry.
Steps are being taken to reduce plastic waste, alternatives to plastic products such as tote bags, reusable bottles and paper straws are more common everyday. However, this does not reverse the damage that has already been done by single-use plastics. Rather than neglecting the marine litter it would be more useful if we could introduce it back into our economy since plastics remain a valuable resource. Closing and slowing the loops in the plastic system such as reintegrating waste back into the supply chain and extending the life of products are steps taken towards a circular economy. Redesigning the current plastic industry to create value through waste collection or recycling services for plastic waste remains a complex challenge. The Clean Ocean Initiative plans to finance 2 billion euros to projects worldwide that focus on cleaning up our rivers and oceans. Although challenging, action is critical, as at this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. Although the oceans are one of the most resilient ecosystems, human interference is needed to revert the damage we have caused and prevent future harmful human impact.
created by Heli Hunttunen (FI)
Food for Thought
What are the risks of having so much plastic in the oceans and the food we eat?
In the complex issue of marine litter, what is the root cause?
Not all the fish we eat is caught in the EU, and the ocean currents disregard borders, should we and can we look beyond our borders to ensure the health and safety of our citizens and ecosystems?
What can we do to reduce our dependence on plastics without hurting our quality of life?
How can changes be made in the plastic supply chain to ensure less of it ends up in the ocean?
A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy - a brochure by the European Commission(2015)
Changing the way we use plastics - a factsheet by the European Commission (2018)
A Plastic Ocean - A documentary on the impact of plastics to our oceans by Netflix (2016)https://www.netflix.com/search?q=plastic&jbv=80164032&jbp=0&jbr=0
E.U. Sets Standard With Ban on Single-Use Plastics by 2021 - an article on the single-use plastic ban by Time (2019)https://time.com/5560105/european-union-plastic-ban/
Plastic Pollution: How Humans are Turning the World into Plastic - a video explaining the effects of plastic pollution by Kurzgesagt (2018) https://youtu.be/RS7IzU2VJIQ
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Not What You Think It Is - a video on plastic accumulation in the ocean by Seeker (2018) https://youtu.be/6HBtl4sHTqU
The European recycling landscape—the quiet before the storm? - an article on the current barriers in the plastic recycling industry by Mckinsey & Company (2020) https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/chemicals/our-insights/the-european-recycling-landscape-the-quiet-before-the-storm#
The Ocean Cleanup Technology Explained - A video on the potential solution to cleaning up marine litter by the Ocean Cleanup (2018) https://youtu.be/O1EAeNdTFHU
Plastic accumulation in the mediterian sea - A paper highlighting the concentration of plastic in the mediterranean sea by Andrés Cózar et al. (2015) https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?type=printable&id=10.1371/journal.pone.0121762
Leaching of plastic additives to marine organisms - A paper on the potential uptake of chemicals after plastic ingestion by aquatic species by Albert A. Koelmans et al. (2014) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2013.12.013