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A recent report on waste from the European Commission indicated that waste management and recycling can make a big contribution to economic growth and job creation. The study provides an in-depth analysis of the effects of better implementation and enforcement of legislation and shows that benefits would be significant. The economic crisis in Europe is setting new priorities for our societies and job creation and sustainable resource management should be at the core of it. In the EU, we are approaching the sad figure of 24 million unemployed; in countries such as Spain almost one out of every four is jobless (22.8% in 2011) and this figures doubles if we look at youth unemployment.

At the same time, millions of tonnes of waste are being sent for incineration or simple disposal inside or outside the EU. The opportunities we are trashing with the prevailing waste policies are just astonishing; especially when you think that half of the household waste is recyclable and the other half represent a “mistake” of industrial design that needs to be fixed. In both cases there should be a huge job opportunity – jobs in waste collection, jobs in reuse centres, jobs in repair shops, jobs in recycling, jobs in composting, jobs in designing better products, jobs in producing high-quality products with recycled material. All of these are jobs that cannot be delocalised and that we are demolishing with every tonne of waste we dump in landfills, send abroad or incinerate. The EU's waste management and recycling sector is very dynamic, but still offers economic opportunities with vast potential for expansion. In 2008, its €145 billion turnover represented around 1% of the EU's GDP and 2 million jobs. Compliance with EU policy would help create a sector with 2.4 million jobs and a total annual turnover of €187 billion.

Meeting the global challenge

The plastic litter problem has become a global problem requiring global solutions. Solutions should be based on sound science, including a global assessment, which collates the available scientific information and makes recommendations of use to the wide variety of policy, industry and societal organisations with responsibility in this area, down to waste management at local level. Policymakers will need to take an integrated view of the whole process and develop a range of options for guidelines and directives, including packaging and treatment of integrated waste management from collection to final disposal.

There is a clear need for improved legislation and wider litter strategies with involvement of key stakeholders, local governments and members of the public. In the end, the only sure solution is to prevent plastics from entering our waterways and reaching the sea. In order to reduce the sources of pollution, improved knowledge is critical. Scientific support, clarifying the involved key processes such as degradation, dynamics and impacts for example, but also looking at the economics, social and employment aspects, will be crucial to develop the required global standards and wider perspectives on marine litter. Building broad consensus around such integrated perspectives is the most promising approach to meeting the now global challenge of marine litter.

Click here for a video about marine litter produced by NOAA and the Smithsonian.