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My friend recently posted a picture on Instagram from Indonesia of a sandy beach completely covered in trash with the text “Where to place my towel?”. It is the monsoon season and reality is hitting hard - there was literally not one single spot free of litter to be seen on the entire beach strip. We have all seen similar pictures: beaches drowning in plastics, sea turtles entangled in fishing gear, microplastics in the tissues of marine biota and plastics in the stomachs of whales just to mention a few. The plastic chaos has not gone unnoticed by global policy makers: China just placed a ban on imported foreign plastics, Kenya made plastic bags illegal and EU announced their Plastics Strategy.
The goals of the EU plastic strategy are ambitious. It aims at making all plastic packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030 and four-folding the sorting and recycling capacity compared to 2015, generating 200 000 new jobs, spread all across Europe. Also, the markets for recycled and innovative plastics are expected to quadruple and the intentional use of microplastics is banned. This is most certainly good news, but naturally, the question of how all of this will be achieved rises.
As I see it, first of all, innovations and funding are in the key position. We need self-degrading packaging materials, a new technology for removing harmful substances out of recycled plastics so it can be used for other purposes than flower pots and improved durability for biodegradable materials. EU needs to generously sponsor new innovations in order for this to happen. Second, we need tighter legislation for plastic waste. At the time being, producers of plastic articles and packaging have little or no interest to take into account the needs of recycling or reuse when they design their products and the demand for recycled plastics is weak. This means that technological solutions are also held back.
Third, international cooperation is mandatory to tackle the plastic crisis. Plastics travel great distances with ocean currents and an effort limited to only one region might be too little too late. Asia surely is a ticking plastic bomb. Oceans are our common heritage, and the costs of marine ecosystem destruction are going to be high for future generations unless we quickly take action. EU now has the chance to act as a guide. Let’s hope they succeed and that other regions will quickly benefit from the new innovations and solutions.
The contributors to this blog are the marine biologists Maria Koivisto (left) and Anu Riihimäki (right).