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Plastic in the ocean: The facts, effects and new EU rules

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Find out key facts about plastic in the ocean with our infographics, as well discover their impact and how the EU is acting to reduce plastic litter in the seas, Society.

The results of today’s single-use, throw-away plastic culture can be seen on sea shores and in oceans everywhere. Plastic waste is increasingly polluting the oceans and according to one estimation, by 2050 the oceans could contain more plastic than fish by weight.

Plastics is one of the seven areas considered as crucial by the European Commission to achieving a circular economy in the EU by 2050. Besides the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, which would phase out the use of microplastics, the Commission is expected to come up with more proposals to address plastic waste, including microplastics, later this year.

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Learn more about what the EU does to reduce plastic pollution.

EU rules, adopted by MEPs on 27 March 2019, tackle lost fishing gear and the 10 single-use plastic products most widely found on European shores. Together these two groups account for 70% of marine litter. These new rules were also approved by the Council in May 2019.

Infographic on key facts and issues caused by plastic waste in the ocean
Infographic on key facts and issues caused by plastic waste in the ocean  


Plastic doesn’t just make a mess on the shores, it also hurts marine animals who get entangled in larger pieces and mistake smaller pieces for food. Ingestion of plastic particles can prevent them from digesting normal food and might attract toxic chemical pollutants to their organisms.

Humans eat plastic through the food chain. How this affects their health is unknown.

Sea litter causes economic losses for sectors and communities dependent on the sea but also for manufacturers: only about 5% of the value of plastic packaging stays in the economy – the rest is literally dumped, showing the need for a approach focussed more on recycling and reusing materials.

Infographic on plastic and non-plastic marine litter by type
Infographic on plastic and non-plastic marine litter by type  

EU ban on single plastics

The most effective way to tackle the problem is to prevent more plastic getting in the ocean.

Single-use plastic items are the biggest single group of waste found on sea shores: products such as plastic cutlery, drink bottles, cigarette butts or cotton buds make up almost half of all sea litter.

List of top 10 single use plastic items found on beaches
List of top 10 single use plastic items found on beaches  

To address this issue, the EU has implemented a total ban for single-use plastic items for which alternatives in other materials are already readily available: cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and balloon sticks. MEPs also added oxo-degradable plastic products and fast food containers made out of polystyrene to the list .

A range of other measures was approved:

  • Extended producer responsibility, especially for tobacco companies, in order to strengthen the application of the polluter pays principle. This new regime will also apply to fishing gear, to ensure that manufacturers, and not fishermen, bear the costs of collecting nets lost at sea.
  • Collection target of 90% by 2029 for drink bottles (for example through deposit refund systems)
  • A 25% target for recycled content in plastic bottles by 2025 and 30% by 2030
  • Labelling requirements for tobacco products with filters, plastic cups, sanitary towels and wet wipes to alert users to their correct disposal
  • Awareness-raising

For fishing gear, which accounts for 27% of sea litter, producers would need to cover the costs of waste management from port reception facilities. EU countries should also collect at least 50% of lost fishing gear per year and recycle 15% of it by 2025.

Impact of marine litter on fisheries

In a resolution adopted on 25 March, the European Parliament is calling for measures to urgently reduce marine litter, including more restrictions on single-use plastics and increasing the use of sustainably made materials designed for fishing gear.

MEPs have stressed how marine waste damages ecosystems and consumers as well as fishing activities and fishermen.

730 tonnes of waste  ; are dumped in the Mediterranean every day

Fisheries and aquaculture waste accounts for 27% of marine waste. To tackle the phenomena of "ghost gear"(which is the loss of fishing gear at sea), MEPs want mapping, reporting and tracking as well as investment in research and innovation to develop eco-friendly fishing equipment. They also call on the Commission to propose phasing out expanded polystyrene containers and packaging from fishery products, as well as all unnecessary plastic and packaging in general.

MEPs also want to see a reinforced maritime vision in the European Green Deal, the Biodiversity Strategy and the Farm to Fork Strategy and call on the Commission to speed up the development of a circular economy in the fisheries and aquaculture sector.

More on what the Parliament does to fight plastic pollution 

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Electricity interconnectivity

Commission approves €30.5 billion French scheme to support production of electricity from renewable energy sources

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The European Commission has approved, under EU state aid rules, a French aid scheme to support renewable electricity production. The measure will help France achieve its renewable energy targets without unduly distorting competition and will contribute to the European objective of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “This aid measure will stimulate development of key renewable energy sources, and support a transition to an environmentally sustainable energy supply, in line with the EU Green Deal objectives. The selection of the beneficiaries through a competitive bidding process will ensure the best value for taxpayers' money while maintaining competition in the French energy market.” 

The French scheme

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France notified the Commission of its intention to introduce a new scheme to support electricity produced from renewable energy sources, namely to onshore operators of solar, onshore wind and hydroelectric installations. The scheme grants support to these operators awarded via competitive tenders. In particular, the measure includes seven types of tenders for a total of 34 GW of new renewables capacity that will be organized between 2021 and 2026: (i) solar on the ground, (ii) solar on buildings, (iii) onshore wind, (iv) hydroelectric installations, (v) innovative solar, (vi) self-consumption and (vii) a technology-neutral tender. The support takes the form of a premium on top of the electricity market price. The measure has a provisional total budget of around €30.5 billion. The scheme is open until 2026 and aid can be paid out for a maximum period of 20 years after the new renewable installation is connected to the grid.

Commission's assessment

The Commission assessed the measure under EU state aid rules, in particular the 2014 Guidelines on state aid for environmental protection and energy.

The Commission found that the aid is necessary to further develop the renewable energy generation to meet France's environmental goals. It also has an incentive effect, as the projects would otherwise not take place in the absence of public support. Furthermore, the aid is proportionate and limited to the minimum necessary, as the level of aid will be set through competitive tenders. In addition, the Commission found that the positive effects of the measure, in particular, the positive environmental effects outweigh any possible negative effects in terms of distortions to competition. Finally, France also committed to carry out an ex-post evaluation to assess the features and implementation of the renewables scheme.

On this basis, the Commission concluded that the French scheme is in line with EU State aid rules, as it will facilitate the development of renewable electricity production from various technologies in France and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in line with the European Green Deal and without unduly distorting competition.

Background

The Commission's 2014 Guidelines on State Aid for Environmental Protection and Energy allow member states to support the production of electricity from renewable energy sources, subject to certain conditions. These rules aim to help member states meet the EU's ambitious energy and climate targets at the least possible cost for taxpayers and without undue distortions of competition in the Single Market.

The Renewable Energy Directive of 2018 established an EU-wide binding renewable energy target of 32% by 2030. With the European Green Deal Communication in 2019, the Commission reinforced its climate ambitions, setting an objective of no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050. The recently adopted European Climate Law, which enshrines the 2050 climate neutrality objective and introduces the intermediate target of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, set the ground for the fit for 55' legislative proposals adopted by the Commission on 14 July 2021. Among these proposals, the Commission has presented an amendment to the Renewable Energy Directive, which sets an increased target to produce 40% of EU energy from renewable sources by 2030.

The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.50272 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved. New publications of State aid decisions on the internet and in the Official Journal are listed in the Competition Weekly e-News.

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Plastic waste

Plastic waste and recycling in the EU: Facts and figures

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Nearly a third of plastic waste in Europe is recycled. Find out more facts and figures on plastic waste and its recycling in the EU with this infographic, Society.

Infographic about plastic waste and recycling in Europe
Find out the facts about plastic waste and recycling in the EU  

The production of plastic has grown exponentially in just a few decades - from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to 359 million tonnes in 2018 worldwide – and with it the amount of plastic waste. After a sharp drop in production in the first half of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, production recovered again in the second half of the year.

The EU is already taking measures to reduce the amount of plastic waste, but what happens to the waste that is generated despite all efforts? And how can plastic recycling rates be increased?

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Plastic waste treatment in Europe

In Europe, energy recovery is the most used way to dispose of plastic waste, followed by recycling. Some 25% of all the generated plastic waste is landfilled.

Half of the plastic collected for recycling is exported to be treated in countries outside the EU. Reasons for export include the lack of capacity, technology or financial resources to treat the waste locally.

Previously, a significant share of the exported plastic waste was shipped to China, but recent restrictions on imports of plastic waste in China is likely to further decrease EU exports. This poses the risk of increased incineration and landfilling of plastic waste in Europe. Meanwhile, the EU is trying to find circular and climate-friendly ways of managing its plastic waste.

The low share of plastic recycling in the EU means significant losses for the economy as well as for the environment. It is estimated that 95% of the value of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy after a short first-use cycle.

Globally, researchers estimate that the production and incineration of plastic pumped more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in 2019. By 2050, those emissions could rise to 2.8 billion tonnes, a part of which could be avoided through better recycling.

Read more about waste management in the EU.

Problems with plastic recycling

The main issues complicating plastic recycling are the quality and price of the recycled product, compared with their unrecycled counterpart. Plastic processors require large quantities of recycled plastic, manufactured to strictly controlled specifications and at a competitive price.

However, since plastics are easily customised to the needs - functional or esthetic - of each manufacturer, the diversity of the raw material complicates the recycling process, making it costly and affecting the quality  of the end product. As a consequence, the demand for recycled plastics is growing rapidly, though in 2018 it accounted for only 6% of plastics demand in Europe.

Find out more about EU plans to reach a circular economy by 2050, including plastic reduction.

EU solutions to increase recycling rates

In May 2018, the European Commission put forward a proposal to address the issue of plastic marine litter. It includes an EU ban on the production of the top 10 single-use plastics that are found on European beaches from 3 July 2021.

As part of the Green Deal, 55% of plastic packaging waste should be recycled by 2030. This would imply better design for recyclability, but MEPs believe measures to stimulate the market for recycled plastic are also needed.

These measures could include:

  • Creating quality standards for secondary plastics;
  • encouraging certification in order to increase the trust of both industry and consumers;
  • introducing mandatory rules on minimum recycled content in certain products, and;
  • encouraging EU countries to consider reducing VAT on recycled products.


The European Parliament also backed the restriction of light-weight plastic bags in the EU in 2015.

In addition MEPs called on the Commission to take action against micro plastics.

Read more about the EU strategy to reduce plastic waste.

Find out more 

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Environment

Water management: Commission consults to update lists of pollutants affecting surface and ground water

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The Commission has launched an online public consultation to seek views on the upcoming review of the lists of pollutants occurring in surface and ground waters, as well as on corresponding regulatory standards. This initiative is particularly important for implementing the recently adopted Zero Pollution Action Plan as part of the European Green Deal, and wider efforts to secure the more efficient and safer use of water.

Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said: “All Europeans should benefit from clean water. Ensuring good quality of surface and groundwater in Europe is paramount for human health and for the environment. Pollution caused by pesticides, manmade chemicals or from residues of pharmaceuticals must be avoided as much as possible. We want to hear your views on how this can best be achieved.”

A recent evaluation (‘fitness check') in December 2019, found EU water legislation to be broadly fit for purpose. However, improvement is needed on aspects such as investment, implementing rules, integrating water objectives into other policies, administrative simplification and digitalisation. This revision aims to address some of the shortcomings in relation to chemical pollution and the legal obligation to regularly review the lists of pollutants, as well as to help accelerate implementation. The public consultation is open for feedback until 1 November 2021. More information is in this news release.

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