EU countries have until July to announce measures they will take to cut plastics and other litter under the 4-year-old Marine Strategy Framework Directive.
The directive also obliges member states to have monitoring programmes in place by mid-2014 as part of the broader effort to address fish and biodiversity loss.
Brussels-based Seas at Risk and seven affiliated European conservation groups are calling on the countries to halve their waste by 2020. The call comes as representatives of 15 coastal and island nations meet in The Hague starting today (16 April) to discuss environmental threats to European waters.
“The 50% target is ambitious, but certainly from our point of view it is achievable and should be an absolute minimum,” Chris Carroll, spokesman for Seas At Risk, told EurActiv.
In a statement, Seas at Risk called the national action programmes due in July a “litmus test for political ambition” and urged governments to reduce debris by boosting incentives for plastics recycling, requiring ships to dispose all waste before leaving EU ports, and strengthening enforcement of littering laws.
The UN Enviroment Programme warns that ocean litter “poses a dire, vast and growing threat to the marine and coastal environment.” It says that plastics, which degrade slowly, are a leading global concern.
UNEP identifies merchant shipping, fishing vessels, warships, offshore oil and gas platforms and pleasure craft as leading sea-based sources of refuse, while municipal dumps and discharge from rivers, sewerage systems and rainwater runoff are leading land-bases sources.
Human debris has detrimental effects on marine life through release of toxins and ingestion of trash by fish and marine mammals, UNEP says.
The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships prohibits disposal of plastics, though conservationists say this is rarely enforced and is readily overlooked on the high seas. Plastic bottles and metal food contains are seen as particularly pernicious forms of littler, according to the International Maritime Organization, which estimates its take 450 years for plastics to dissolve and 500 years for metals food containers.
An EU-funded study – ‘Public Perceptions of Europe’s Seas’ – shows that litter is second after industrial pollution as a source of public concern for the marine environment.
According to the 2011 study, 75% of those surveyed said litter poses “a severe threat” to oceans. Just 24% of people saw farming as a threat, although nitrate and phosphate pollution from agricultural applications are seen as feeding algae plumes along EU coasts.
The survey involved 7,000 people in seven countries in December 2010 and January 2011.