Strategies for Solving the Plastic Pollution Problem

Kim Detloff, NABU, 2012

Garbage in the sea is a global phenomenon. The causes and consequences are many and varied and, so far, have not been sufficiently studied. What is certain is that particularly large amounts of waste enter the sea from the land. By avoiding creating garbage wherever possible and recycling the waste that we do produce, we can achieve a great deal for our seas. Politicians must establish the relevant framework by improving environmental and waste management legislation. And the authorities must ensure that these laws are observed. Businesses have a particular responsibility, as they can directly influence consumers’ decisions. Criteria such as the careful use of resources, long lifespan, and the reuse of products must be made a fixed part of product development. By purchasing ecological, regional products with a long life every one of us can protect the seas.

Strategies and Initiatives for Protecting the Seas
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has published a number of studies on the pollution of the oceans by waste and supports regional projects. At the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference held in Hawaii in spring 2011, more than 400 invited participants discussed new scientific knowledge and initiatives with regard to marine waste. The Honolulu Strategy aims to stop the pollution of the oceans by 2030. The participants called for increased international collaboration in this area. In European seas, too, marine debris is increasingly becoming a problem. In the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive that came into force in July 2008, EU environmental legislation for the first time considered pollution of waters by waste. The aim of the directive is to establish a “good environmental status” in Europe’s sea by 2020. To achieve this goal the member states are called upon to implement measures to ensure that in the future waste will have “no harmful effects on the coastal and marine environment.” Until the implementation of the first measures in 2015, knowledge about marine debris and its path into the marine food chain is to be expanded so as to develop monitoring standards.

Regional Solutions:
The NABU “Seas without Plastic” Project

In summer 2010, the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) started the project “Seas without Plastic.” Since then, through information events, cleanups, and monitoring campaigns it has battled against the vast amounts of garbage in the seas. At the center of this initiative is the project “Fishing for Litter,“ which is being implemented in Germany for the first time. More than thirty fishermen from the Baltic ports Heiligenhafen, Burgstaaken on Fehmarn, and Sassnitz on Rügen bring debris that has entangled in their nets to the ports where there is a free waste disposal facility. The debris provides important data on garbage pollution levels in the Baltic. In a study conducted jointly with Grüner Punkt (Green Dot)—Duales System Deutschland GmbH, NABU is looking at the composition of the debris and examining to what extent it is recyclable. Behind these efforts is the question whether garbage from the sea can, in the future, be reintroduced to the material cycle.

Collecting Garbage, Cleaning Up Beaches
Cleanup campaigns help to rid the seas of dangerous debris. At the same time they also provide valuable data on garbage pollution. Environmental associations throughout the world organize collection campaigns. Probably the best known of these is the International Coastal Cleanup Day of the US organization Ocean Conservancy. In 2010 this event was held for the twenty-fifth time. More than 500,000 people in over 100 countries collected more than 3,300 tons of debris. Every year numerous active NABU members take part in this campaign on the North Sea and the Baltic.

Recycling and Innovative Product Design
To rid the seas of all debris appears an impossible task. Therefore avoiding creating waste is the most important starting point for protecting the seas from plastic garbage. Product design can establish important parameters for environmental compatibility. Products that have a long life, are recyclable, and are free from pollutants protect the environment. If our garbage ends up in the sea we also lose valuable raw materials for new products. Effective registration systems and a recycling procedure that includes all waste can make a valuable contribution to the protection of the seas, while at the same time saving valuable, finite resources.

Everyone Can Help
Every individual can help to preserve the seas from the dangerous consequences of plastic debris. Marine protection starts with our own consumption patterns at home.

- Never throw garbage away thoughtlessly; always put it in the trash can. Every bag and plastic bottle blown by the wind can end up in the sea via rivers or the drainage system.

- Don’t use plastic bags; instead carry your purchases in a cloth bag or a backpack.

- Take part in cleanup campaigns and support the projects of environmental organizations.

Further information can be found at (in German)

Dr. Kim Cornelius Detloff is a marine biologist and works as consultant for marine protection at NABU, the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union Germany. After studying at the University of Hamburg, he spent a number of years as a scientist and private lecturer at the Institut für Marine Biologie on the Italian island of Giglio. From 2006 to 2008 he was employed as a campaigner by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). After a year as political-scientific advisor to the Bonn Convention (CMS), he today works at the NABU headquarters in Berlin.