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The most effective way to manage the marine litter pollution issue is by limiting the input, by changing ways and behaviours that cause marine debris to enter the environment in the first place. At the moment, only about 3.5% of generated plastic are recycled throughout the world and perhaps around 10% of produced plastic ends up in the sea each year (4). This means that at this point it is probably better to focus on limiting new inputs than trying to clean out what is there. Especially costly clean-up operations – e.g. fishing for litter schemes who compensate and send out fishermen to actively fish and collect marine litter should be avoided as they most likely have a further negative impact on the marine environment through sustained overcapacity of fishing fleets, by-catch and fuel consumption.


Retention and proper disposal of marine litter by fishermen should become mandatory without compensation; in the long term they will reap the benefits together with all of us. Statutory waste audits for all ships and the retention and disposal of litter caught by commercial fishermen will, of course, require an extension of port waste reception facilities (e.g. skip provision). Ports and fishermen are not the only ones, who need to be active and need reception facilities. Better facilities for litter collection in general are often lacking on beaches and in our daily environment. Overall, statutory cleaning, improved reception facilities and litter collection enforcement together with targeted educational programmes for the general public and involved stakeholders, should improve in order to drive changing behaviour towards littering.

Of course, we must reduce the production of litter and educate people not to litter, but in most countries in the world some of the plastic will always escape the preferred disposal routes and find its way into the open landscape or the ocean, from which it cannot realistically be collected. Obviously, we can reverse these trends by less or better use of plastic packaging, through the development of better designed plastics, better labelling and the promotion of local products and markets. If we can buy clearly marked dolphin-free tuna, why can we not buy plastic-free or environmentally friendly labelled products with plastics that convert at the end of their useful lives into materials which are truly biodegradable in the environment? Currently there is a lot of controversy in relation to biodegradable plastics and their effective breakdown, mainly because clear regulations are missing.

Another critical point that needs urgent attention is sewage overflow, a condition whereby untreated sewage is discharged into the environment prior to reaching treatment facilities. It thereby escapes waste water treatment even where treatment facilities exist. This overflow happens mostly because of heavy rainfall and sometimes by opening the overflows deliberately. This circumstance is most prevalent in cities whose sub-surface infrastructure is quite old – Paris, London, Stockholm, New York and Washington DC are typical examples of such locations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 40,000 overflow events occur in the United States alone each year. Other advanced European countries and Japan have similar or even somewhat larger frequencies of similar events.

Emerging economies discharge still about half of all sewage without treatment of any type. Typical debris from these sources includes street litter, industrial waste water, domestic effluents, raw sewage and medical waste. Improving the function, storage and efficiency of combined sewage overflows should effectively limit this input. Regrettably this usually implies rather high infrastructural costs, though China has successfully experimented with cheaper yet effective constructed wetlands as a result of international scientific cooperation (5).

Land based management


A lot of countries face significant barriers to the effective prevention and control of marine litter. In many cases, financial, cultural and awareness barriers may impede development of political will to address the problem. The problem is not typically one of developed countries or industrialised areas, although regional differences and pressures may leave different imprints.

A marine litter review in the East Asian Seas region concluded that the problem of marine litter is likely to be particularly severe in this region, due in part to the massive industrial and urban development in the coastal zones, combined with an exponential and sustained growth in shipping activity serving the region’s rapidly expanding economies, and the current lack of effective marine litter prevention and control measures in many surrounding countries (6). Lost or abandoned fishing gear is likely to be a part of this concern in the East Asian Seas region due to the large size of the fishing industry and lack of effective regulation, including high levels of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the region.

The Caribbean experience shows that effective waste management at sea is in fact often a broader land management issue, i.e. dealing with the garbage collected on land is the biggest part of the problem. A country-by-country survey was necessary to influence policy and to make sure that ships’ waste and port reception facilities are integrated into national waste management plans. This requires regional standardisation of charges and changes to port-state control. As a result, port reception facilities and cost recovery mechanisms have to be introduced in all the Caribbean member states for the policy to be effective.

In the European Union alone, we throw away three billion tonnes of waste each year. This amounts up to about 6 tonnes of solid waste for every man, woman and child per year. Most of what we throw away is either burnt in incinerators or dumped into landfill sites (67%). By 2020, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that we could be generating 45% more waste than we did in 1995 (7). Unfortunately stockpiling waste is not a viable solution and simply destroying it is unsatisfactory due to the resulting emissions and highly concentrated, polluting residues.

Exporting waste legally or illegally to poor countries has become a vast and growing international business, as companies try to minimise the costs of new environmental laws that tax waste or require recycling or otherwise disposal in an environmentally responsible way. It is often much more expensive to incinerate or recycle in Europe than to put it on a boat overseas. There is no adequate enforcement in place to control this kind of trade and escape routes exist aplenty. The temptation to export waste is huge, because recycling at home gets more and more expensive due to Europe’s new environmental laws. Huge amounts of waste in the whole of the EU escape legal treatment. E-waste, for example, is often labelled as second-hand goods, which can be legally shipped, even though it is destined for dismantling.