Challenges and Opportunities in monitoring the sources and pathways of Marine Debris in the Atlantic Ocean

Virtual event, 3 June, 11:30 – 13:30 UTC

Monitoring of marine litter quantities and impacts is an integral part of any successful Strategy to reduce both. Monitoring is directly relevant for designing measures, and for assessing their effectiveness. National and regional data collection and monitoring activities should be adequate and compatible. This should be also reflected in a future efficient global architecture to fight plastic pollution – Michail Papdoyannakis (European Commission)

The event served to catalyse linkages, actions and coordination of stakeholders and scientists addressing the challenges of marine litter in countries across the Atlantic Ocean. Hosted by Dr Audrey Hasson, the GEO Blue Planet EU coordinator, this was an official side event at the All-Atlantic 2021 Conference, which took place from 2 – 4 June 2021.

With 125 participants from 33 countries around the world in attendance, the event facilitated a dialogue between Atlantic key partners to identify needs, issues and opportunities around the monitoring and mitigation of marine debris. It also served to establish essential collaborations between nations, international and regional initiatives, and scientists to jointly address this unprecedented challenge.

It is so exciting to see the importance of monitoring taking centre stage. It is not only about academic research, or citizen science, it is about having data being collected in a sustained matter and informing review of existing policy, ensuring better decision making and identifying emerging threats and opportunities – Christopher Corbin (UNEP Cartagena Convention)

In the combat against marine debris, monitoring is essential to identify products found in the ocean and in coastal regions that need to be banned as well as to evaluate the effectiveness of bans. This is very much the case for the European Commission’s Single-Use Plastic Directive, which tackles the 10 single-use plastic items most commonly found on Europe’s beaches. Ocean and coastal monitoring continue to play a critical role to guide and evaluate this informed EU policy. Where sustainable alternatives are easily available and affordable, single-use plastic products will be banned from 3 July 2021.

Download the speakers’ presentations (pdf format)
Panelists and Speakers from Marine Litter All-Atlantic 2021 side event

Marine litter is defined as “any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment”. From derelict fishing gear to cosmetic microbeads, its various forms and sizes are found from pole to pole near coastal shores to the depths of the oceansLarger pieces can accumulate on beaches or at the ocean floor but are also a threat to marine life through entanglement and shocking. Plastics of any size fragment into smaller pieces under various processes such as the influence of UV and mechanical stress. Microplastics are now widely distributed through the oceans and they can be vectors for pollutants and pathogens. The behaviour and impact of smaller size plastic pieces is under investigation. Most polymers manufactured today is likely to persist for decades and probably for centuries, if not millennial. 

In addition to polymers, additives such as flame retardants, and plasticizers are mixed into synthetic materials to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity. Some of these substances are persistent organic pollutants (POPs) listed under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. In 2019, the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention adopted a set of actions for reducing the generation of plastic waste, improving its management, controlling its movement, reducing the risk from hazardous and raising public awareness, education, and information exchange. 

Marine litter is a multi-dimensional problem with economic, environmental, cultural, and human health costs. To address this issue, the United Nations created Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, “Life Below Water” and Target 14.1: “by 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution”. To achieve this target, there is a need to identify marine litter and assess marine litter observation and detection methods to inform policy. A variety of international and regional instruments and approaches exist to protect biodiversity, manage hazardous chemicals and wastes, and monitor and prevent pollution of the marine environment from ocean-based and land-based sources of pollution. The cooperation among those initiatives and activities is key to effectively addressing this global environmental challenge. 

11:30 – 11:35

Welcome and workshop overview 5′ – Audrey Hasson (GEO Blue Planet/ EU4OceanObs)

11:35 – 12:05 UTC 

1) Scientific knowledge and challenges

  • Societal impacts of marine litter – Dr. José C. Ferreira (FCT NOVA – NOVA University & MARE, Portugal) 
  • Monitoring and forecasting of marine litter – Dr. Lauren Biermann (PML/IOCCG Marine Litter task force, UK)
  • Coastal urbanisation growth & marine litter future challenges – Dr Hans-Peter Plag (IEEE, USA)

5′ break

12:10 – 12:40 UTC

2) Towards informed policy-making

  • Informed communication of marine litter – Anga Mbeyiya (African Marine Waste Network, South Africa)
  • Material and Environmental Sciences to Inform Regulation – Dr. Denise Mitrano (ETH Switzerland)
  • Observation driven policy making – Dr. Alexander Turra (UNESCO Chair on Ocean Sustainability)

10′ break

12:50 – 13:30 UTC

3) Building Opportunities with experts and stakeholders

Introduction – Dr. François Galgani (Ifremer, France)

Panel Discussion:

  • Dr. Lauren Biermann (PML/IOCCG Marine litter task force, UK) 
  • Denise Mitrano (ETH, Switzerland)
  • Dr. Alexander Turra (UNESCO Chair on Ocean Sustainability)
  • Heidi Savelli (UNEP Global Partnership on Marine Litter) 
  • Christopher Corbin (UNEP Cartagena Convention) 
  • Dr. Diagana (UNEP Abidjan Convention) 
  • Mareike Erfeling (OSPAR Convention, Rijkswaterstaat, Netherlands)
  • Michail Papadoyannakis (European Commission) 

Links to resources discussed during the event:

Publications: 

  • If you are interested more about (micro)plastics regulation to incentivise both innovation and environmental safety, you can read more here:
  • Information on placing nanoplastics in the context of global plastic pollution can be found here.

Q1. I was wondering if you can differentiate the types of floating plastic and/or if all plastics have the same signature? As plastics are a diverse group of materials, can they all be measured equally (well)? 

Response from Lauren Biermann (PML/IOCCG Marine litter task force): In the lab using hyper spectral data, we do see clear differences in spectral shape. From Sentinel-2 unfortunately, I have seen no evidence of that yet, but perhaps with more in situ validation we’ll be able to tell for certain either way! 

Q2. Can we use hyper spectral data from satellite to monitor plastic ? 

Response from Lauren Biermann (PML/IOCCG Marine litter task force): My colleague Aser Mata has been looking at how possible it is to use hyper spectral data for plastic detection on beaches, because I have not found it to work reliably or reproducibly at all using my technique. He has been getting some excellent results, where I actually am quite dependant on water, and how strongly it absorbs light in the NIR and SWIR. Simple approach, but quite limited to water for that reason. 

Q3. Given the diverse sources, pathways and impacts of plastic litter and microplastics, what would you recommend would be priority areas to change behaviour? Is it education, market-based instruments or regulatory change? What would you think would be more effective medium and long-term? 

What we have been verifying over these years in research into marine litter, to find solutions, ways to reduce the impact of marine litter, necessarily involves the active involvement of communities.  

Changing behavior is difficult. In communities with few resources, on small islands that import their essential goods, the solution is plastic-free packaging. It is important to find alternatives.  

Then prevent plastics from reaching rivers and the sea. Through an efficient collection system, and appropriate behavior.  

More than formal education, we need environmental literacy, we need to better communicate science and we need public policies to be efficient, easily understood by communities, which meet the needs and specifications of each of the communities. 

For me, I think this has to be legislated and regulated. We know recycling isn’t the answer, and consumers cannot do much when they are surrounded by plastics. Behavioural change is all good, but it can only go so far when millions of tons of waste plastics are being sent from Europe and North America to SE Asian countries every year. 

Internalizing the environmental and health costs into the price of plastics would in most cases make plastic far too expensive to use and would create the need to reduce plastic and find alternatives.  

107 attendees and 13 panel speakers participated in this event, coming from 33 countries across the globe. Participants included Policy makers, research communitiesacademic institution representatives, industry representatives, innovation clusters, and projects related to blue economy from countries around the Atlantic. 

  • GEO Blue Planet (A. Hasson (EU4OceanObs action coordinator) and S. Djavidnia) 
  • AIR Center (J. Moutinho) 
  • IEEE OES (R. Garello, H.P. Plag) 
  • Ifremer (F. Galgani) 
  • OceanPredict (E. Chassignet) 

Replay of the event