>> “Climate Solutions” is also available as a podcast and an e-book.


By Alessandra Borrello and Jonas Byström

An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic ends up as waste in the oceans each year. If we want to stop this pollution, we shouldn’t focus on the oceans.

To save the seas, we need to change our work on land.

Every day, plastics are thrown or washed into streets, backyards, rivers, beaches and coastal areas all over the world. A lot of this waste ends up in the oceans. It also clogs drains and increases flooding in many cities, creating a breeding ground for disease-bearing insects and rodents.

One key problem is that people buy too many single-use plastics such as bags, bottles and straws, and they throw them away after a short time. There is a simple fix to this problem: stop buying and using such products and packaging. There is no simple fix to the other problem: improving the poor waste collection and disposal methods in many parts of the world. Both of these problems send a lot of plastic into the seas.

About 40% of the plastic that ends up in the oceans comes from trash discarded in or near rivers by the two billion people who lack waste collection services. Of all the plastic arriving in the oceans from rivers, 90% comes from just 10 rivers, mainly in Africa and Asia. Fast population growth and rapid urbanisation in many cities around the world, particularly in coastal areas, add to the plastics problem.

The need to conserve the oceans is one the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Over the past few years, the European Investment Bank and other development institutions have been working hard to safeguard the seas and help the world meet these goals.

After all, investments in the oceans should not be an afterthought. Oceans cover nearly two-thirds of our planet. We rely on them for water, food, climate and oxygen. Nearly half the population depends directly on the seas for their livelihoods. Oceans are a source of renewable energy, natural resources and new ingredients for plant, animal and medical care.

©Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images/Getty Images

A stop sign for plastics

A lot of the environmental news in the headlines over the past few years has been related to plastic waste in the oceans. Whales washed ashore with stomachs full of plastic. Microscopic plastic particles were found in fish samples around the world. The oceans contain trillions of miniscule pieces of plastic, as well as giant “garbage patches,” the biggest of which, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is estimated to cover an area three times the size of France. Plastic contains hazardous chemicals that are eaten by fish and then consumed by people, leading to many health issues.

To fight plastic waste, the European Investment Bank launched the Clean Oceans Initiative in 2018 with the German and French development banks, KfW and the Agence Française de Développement. The three banks are providing technical advice and up to €2 billion in financing over five years for projects that collect and manage plastics and other waste and clean up wastewater before it reaches the ocean.

The initiative is primarily helping cities in coastal and riverine areas, in the developing countries of Asia and Africa. It will help public authorities and private companies of all sizes. It also encourages research and innovation.

The projects eligible for support involve:

  • collection, recycling and proper disposal of plastics
  • reduction of plastic discharge in ports and harbours
  • innovative ideas that reduce plastic waste or develop reusable plastic
  • wastewater collection and treatment
  • storm water projects that prevent plastics from entering rivers or seas during heavy rains
© Turnervisual/Getty Images

Cleaner water for thousands of people

About a dozen investments are in the planning stages or have been signed. Here are three that have been approved:

  • A €50 million loan for Cotonou on the south coast of Benin to renovate storm water systems and protect the area from floods every rainy season. This will help 187,000 people and cut down on pollution in the Gulf of Guinea.
  • An €80 million loan to improve water and sanitation services in Buenos Aires, extending a sewer network and a wastewater treatment plant, as well as upgrading a water treatment plant in the metropolitan area. This will improve access to water and the quality of the water for more than 24,000 people.
  • A €214 million loan to reduce pollution in the 69-kilometre Kitchener Drain, a system of canals in the Nile Delta of Lower Egypt. This is one of the most severely polluted canal systems in the country. A large amount of plastics will be removed from wastewater in the canals, heading off this pollution before it makes it to the Mediterranean Sea.

This new Bank initiative focuses on developing countries, but projects in other parts of the world are eligible if they make a big difference in cleaning the seas. In Warsaw, for example, the Bank financed a wastewater management that stopped untreated sewage from being dumped into the Vistula River and ending up in the Baltic Sea.

It can be difficult to find bankable projects, and preparing projects in the developing world takes a lot of time and resources. But if we don’t do the difficult work now, we will suffer and so will the oceans in the decades ahead.

Blue economy investment counters plastic threats

There are many threats to the oceans besides plastics. Because of climate change and the damage brought on by the seven billion people on Earth, the oceans are suffering from:

  • melting ice caps
  • rising acidity
  • overexploitation
  • coastal degradation
  • untreated wastewater disposal

We are working closely with other development institutions and the public and private sectors to address these problems, so we can involve everyone who relies on the ocean. This includes the shipping industry, fisheries and tourism, aquaculture, energy, biotechnology. Cooperation is the key to tackling global challenges and protecting shared natural resources such as the oceans.

While the European Investment Bank is focusing its ocean efforts on projects aimed at plastics, we are working on a wide range of sustainable ocean and coastal projects. These involve adaptation, biodiversity and ecosystems, and they aim to improve the health of the seas and coasts while increasing their resilience to climate change.

© Busakorn Pongparnit/Getty Images

Coastal communities thrive with blue economy investment

In 2018, the European Investment Bank was a principal player in the adoption of the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles. These principles explain how to make sure investments do not hurt marine life or coastal development or erode the ocean’s health. There are 14 principles designed to address habitat destruction, plastic pollution and overfishing as well as foster cooperation on ocean health, scientific research, data collection and innovation.

The European Investment Bank also supports the Sustainable Ocean Fund. This fund, launched in 2018, helps fisheries, aquaculture, the seafood supply chain, and coastal development, mainly in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The EU bank is investing up to €20 million in this fund.

The Sustainable Ocean Fund is raising $100 million to invest in as many as 20 ocean projects in emerging markets. This will conserve fishing communities and improve the lives of people who rely on the ocean for food and jobs. The fund will support more than 5,000 jobs in underserved coastal towns and preserve 14,000 jobs in supply chains and related businesses.

This is all because the ocean isn’t only an ecological issue. It’s an economic issue. When big institutions like the European Investment Bank get involved, we crowd in private investors who see that they can make a profit with green investments. That’s good for the ocean. It’s also good for growth and jobs.

It is hard to overstate how important it is to step up our actions to preserve the oceans. People must realize that the rivers and oceans are not their garbage disposal. We are cleaning the seas for the good of humanity. We have to do it, to preserve our future.

Climate Solutions:

  • For policy makers: Take steps to reduce or prevent the use of single-use plastics. Require producers of plastic packaging to take responsibility for the waste created.  Realize that collecting and recycling plastics is good for the oceans and for the climate.
  • For citizens: Throwing away waste in a proper way will improve the environment and public health. Separating plastics also can be a source of income. Participate in river or beach clean-up activities.
  • For financial institutions: The focus should be on finding circular solutions to prevent plastic pollution. Encourage recycling and recovery rather than disposal.

Alessandra Borrello and Jonas Byström are senior sector experts at the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg


>> “Climate Solutions” is also available as a podcast and an e-book.