By Juan Bofill

The oceans face many threats, but plastic waste is one risk we can reduce today with harder work.

Plastic waste is entering the seas in greater quantities each year and in many countries there is little control because of improper management of solid waste. This type of pollution may start innocently as a bottle of water on a store shelf, before being dumped on a street or in a park and starting its long journey down rivers and into the seas and oceans. The problem is being made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, because of protective gear such as masks that aren’t disposed of correctly.

These plastics are a significant—but not insurmountable—environmental threat. We’re working on ways to finance the solutions to this growing problem.

Plastics are thrown or washed into streets, backyards, rivers, beaches and coastal areas all over the world.

Pandemic increases plastic waste

About 10 million tonnes of plastics are discharged into the oceans each year. In the Mediterranean Sea, 570,000 tons of plastic are dumped each year, equal to nearly 34,000 plastic bottles per minute, according to the World Wildlife Fund. It is hard to estimate how much plastic is in the oceans today, but the Ocean Conservancy believes there are around 150 million metric tons circulating in marine environments.

When plastic waste is poorly managed, plastics are thrown or washed into streets, backyards, rivers, beaches and coastal areas all over the world. Plastic trash clogs drains and increases flood damage in many cities.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis is intensifying the plastics problem. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that if 1% of the billions of masks being produced are tossed on the ground, this might pollute the environment with up to 10 million masks per month. To make it worse, much of the plastic-based materials being made to protect the public and health workers — like gloves, face masks and gowns — are single-use plastic items, worn once and thrown away. 

The invisible obstacle

Much of the plastic around the world that enters the seas is in the form of particles smaller than 5 millimetres wide. These are called microplastics and it is common to find them in aquatic animals, which have ingested them. Much more research is needed on this topic, but microplastics are a direct threat to aquatic life and may indirectly hurt organisms that eat aquatic life—including humans.

In the European Union, many microplastics are captured by stormwater or wastewater collection systems and transported to treatment plants, which may be capturing up to 99% of the small particles. The captured microplastics end up in the sludge produced by treatment plants, and since this sludge is often used as fertiliser for farms, it can get back into the water through runoff. In this way, some of the microplastics in sludge could be entering the waterways, even after treatment plants do their work.

Microplastics are classified by some researchers as “primary” or “secondary.” Some primary microplastics are added to products on purpose, such as microbeads used in toothpaste and sunscreen. Other primary microplastics are created when tyres wear down on roads or when clothes rub together in a washing machine. Secondary microplastics form when plastic breaks down into smaller fragments in the water, such as what happens when a nylon fishing net is lost in the ocean. There is also larger plastic waste, such as plastic bottles. This type of waste is called macroplastic, and it could be stopped by putting in place proper waste management. Microplastics are the nearly invisible obstacle that can’t be solved easily. Many of the solutions for keeping these tiny plastics out of the waterways are still in development.

Many of the technical solutions for keeping tiny plastics out of the waterways are still being developed.

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Textiles, tyres and dust

The International Union for Conservation of Nature says that the main way microplastics travel from land to sea is by hitching a ride with stormwater and untreated sewage water (96%) or the wind (4%).

Most of the microplastic pollution in the world doesn’t come from discarded bottles. It comes from textiles, tyres and city dust. These three sources account for over 80% of all microplastic pollution in the environment and the seas.

How microplastics end up in waterways:

  • Deterioration of paint on roads, tyre degradation and city dust washed into waterways
  • Plastic pallets spilled into the seas from shipping containers
  • Fish netting and other textiles dumped into ocean
  • Laundry products and cosmetics discharged into sewage water
  • Marine coating on ships washed into the water

What’s so bad about a little plastic?

There is some evidence that microplastics harm aquatic life. Fish often mistake plastic particles for food. When they eat the plastic, it can block digestive tracts, which then sends incorrect feeding signals to the brains of the animals. A turtle can die from eating a plastic bag, but smaller particles accumulate in the digestive system without killing the animal. Some other microplastics end up in the food chain when humans eat fish or seafood. 

Reducing microplastics in water bodies could lead to fewer deaths and increased fertility of aquatic animals in oceans. This would increase the value of fisheries and aquaculture, and it would improve public health.

Reducing microplastics in water bodies could lead to fewer deaths and increased fertility of aquatic animals in oceans.

Europe’s plans to reduce microplastics

Plastic pollution is expected to keep increasing, particularly in lower-income countries with expanding economies. This makes it more important than ever to work harder to reduce plastic pollution by improving waste management everywhere in the world and helping poorer countries control the problem. The European Union has made it a high priority to reduce plastic pollution, and there are pieces of legislation and policies addressing this. Here are a few EU plans:

  • A new Circular Economy Action Plan by the European Commission proposes mandatory requirements for the recycling and waste reduction of key products such as plastic packaging. This plan starts the process to restrict the intentional addition of microplastics into products. It also calls for measures to capture more microplastics at all stages of a product’s lifecycle. The plan, for example, would examine different policies to reduce the release of microplastics from tyres and textiles.
  • The European Commission plans to update its Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive to further tackle microplastic waste and other pollutants. The directive aims to protect the environment from urban and industrial waste water discharge.
  • A revision to the EU Drinking Water Directive has been provisionally approved. This revision would make sure microplastics are regularly monitored in water supplies used for drinking water. If a problem is found, countries must propose solutions to fix the problem

We still have to do a lot more work and adopt more policies to collect microplastics after they have entered the environment. Conventional wastewater treatment plants can capture up to 99% of microplastics (mainly originating from textiles) in sewage water, meaning that almost all microplastics from wastewater can be collected by modern treatment plants.

In the European Union, at least 90% of wastewater already receives this conventional treatment – capturing microplastics and storing them in sewage sludge. This sludge is mostly used as fertiliser, incinerated or dumped in a landfill, which is an activity that does not meet the circular economy principle and will not be allowed in the future.

If all stormwater and sewage water in the world are collected and we avoid discharges into water bodies, we could stop most microplastics from reaching the oceans. An update to the EU rules on urban wastewater and drinking water will be a major step toward the collection of microplastics. 

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What can the EIB do?

It will take several billions of euros in investment each year to reduce microplastics in the European Union alone. The private sector often doesn’t have the right incentives to invest in programmes that reduce microplastics in the environment, because companies’ extra costs on such projects can’t be fully met with higher prices. There is a big need for the public sector to regulate microplastics, impose stricter emission standards and offer affordable financing to help the water sector make the right investments.  

In 2017, the European Investment Bank approved a new lending orientation for the water sector to offer more support and long-term financing to water utilities, water resource managers and industrial wastewater users.

In 2018, the European Investment Bank launched the Clean Oceans Initiative with the Agence Française de Développement and KfW, the German development bank. Together, these three public institutions will be providing up to €2 billion in lending, grants and technical assistance until 2023 to develop projects that remove pollution (with a focus on plastic and microplastics) from waterways before it reaches the oceans.

The bank also addresses microplastic problems by collaborating with the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and many other public and private institutions. The bank participates regularly around the world in meetings and forums to clean up and preserve the waterways and oceans.

The European Investment  Bank is one of the largest multilateral lenders to the water sector. We have provided many billions of euros to finance water projects around the world. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, climate and the environment remain high on our agenda and it is not time to slow down.

Juan Bofill is a Senior Water Engineer at the European Investment Bank