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Effective measures for the oceans

Felix Steiner
Felix Steiner
November 5, 2018

The amount of plastic waste in the oceans keeps increasing. The EU wants to counteract this by banning various products — but a truly effective solution calls for very different measures, says Felix Steiner.

Plastic waste on a beach in India
Image: picture-alliance/Zuma Press/S. Sharma

If, as cynics say, politics is really all about big, symbolic gestures, the European Union is on the right track.

It has announced a ban on disposable plastic cutlery, drinking straws and cotton buds, which is guaranteed to make the world a better place.

The ban's usefulness in cleaning up the oceans, which is what it's supposed to be for, is likely to be marginal. But it'll mean we Europeans can feel good — and that's the main thing — because we'll have done something.

Plastic, plastic everywhere

There's no denying it: We're surrounded by more and more plastic.

At the supermarket: vegetables, fruit, meat, sausage or cheese — all packed in plastic. Every book in the bookshop: wrapped in plastic. The woman who sells me bread rolls for my breakfast is wearing plastic gloves. And on the subway a plastic water bottle is sticking out of almost every rucksack. As if there were no taps in German offices, schools and universities. Incidentally, they all supply perfectly good — indeed, often very palatable — drinking water, but that's another story.

Does this mean, though, that this profusion of single-use and disposable articles automatically ends up in the sea? Of course not.

There are extensive waste management systems across Europe. Some of these even separate items into different materials, a high proportion of which are recycled.

Anyone who regularly spends time on Europe's beaches or goes sailing in the Mediterranean knows that cotton buds, drinking straws and plastic forks really aren't the problem. Because what you find at the seaside or floating in the sea are predominantly: water bottles, plastic bags, remnants of fishing nets, engine oil, and shower gel bottles. No one is suggesting that any of these should fundamentally be banned, but the problem could be radically reduced through the introduction of statutory deposit systems or minimum pricing. This is where the EU can come into its own!

However, the real hotspots of maritime pollution aren't in Europe at all. Eight of the 10 rivers that wash the most plastic into the seas every day — by the ton — are in Asia. The two others are in Africa.

What, then, can Europe do? Can it really do no more than share alarming images on social media and bemoan the miserable state of the world? Naturally Europe has other, very different possibilities. For example, this: Help the regions beside these dirtiest rivers to build up proper waste disposal and recycling systems, so that garbage won't simply be dumped into running water in future.

Garbage collection costs money

European companies — German companies in particular — have excellent ideas and highly efficient facilities to offer.

The problem is that in the affected regions no one can, or wants to, pay for them. So if this topic really is that important to us Europeans, we have no alternative but to dig deep into our own pockets and provide the relevant development projects ourselves.

That would at least be an effective and sustainable policy — but one that's considerably more expensive than banning plastic cutlery and cotton buds.

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