In light of the new European Commission’s President’s objective to move Europe towards a zero-pollution ambition, this event asked the pressing question: How can science and innovation tackle ocean pollution? The programme included speeches, an interactive panel discussion and a Q&A session with the audience.
Welcoming remarks were made by co-organisers of the event. SEARICA Intergroup President, MEP Tonino Picula, formally opened the conference by emphasizing the importance of marine and maritime issues in key areas such as climate change, food security and sustainability, biodiversity and economic growth, for the future of the European Union. JPI Oceans Executive Director, Thorsten Kiefer, highlighted that clean oceans are a top priority in the agenda of JPI Oceans. The new Joint Transnational Call on emerging Aquatic Pollutants is just one example of the activities JPI Oceans is currently bringing forward. The Director of the European Regional Office of IUCN, Luc Bas, then drew the participants’ attention towards IUCN’s recent Marine Plastic Footprint report, calculating a yearly plastic leakage into the ocean of 12 million tons, consisting predominantly of microplastics.
To further set the scene, Sigi Gruber, Head of the Healthy Oceans and Seas Unit in the DG for Research and Innovation of the European Commission, highlighted how the EU aims to achieve clean and healthy oceans and seas over the coming decade, and climate neutrality by 2050. She highlighted the big potential for joint action under the frameworks of Horizon 2020, the European Green Deal and the Mission Healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters.
A practical answer to the thematic question of the event was provided by Marcella Hansch in an inspiring keynote speech. Marcella is founder and CEO of the Pacific Garbage Screening non-profit organization, aiming to battle plastics pollution of the ocean by “closing the tap” from rivers, one of the main inputs of marine plastic pollution. With her multitalented team, Marcella aims to implement various innovative technologies for plastics collection, as well as a sustainable recycling system. In her speech, she underlined that expanding collaborations, nature-oriented education and awareness-raising will play vital roles in the success of her project and in overcoming ocean pollution.
The busy room filled with experts and stakeholders ensured a great setting to kick off the panel discussion, moderated by Gesine Meißner, former MEP and former chair of SEARICA. The conversation focused on the challenges faced by the different sectors in order to achieve clean oceans - including the encountered knowledge gaps - as well as their achieved successes and their political and societal wishes to improve the current situation.
Next to the evident and popular topic of microplastics, the panellists also raised other types of ocean pollution such as sewage, chemicals, industrial and agricultural wastes and underwater noise. For instance, Antidia Citores, Spokeswoman from the Surfrider Foundation Europe and Member of the Mission Board Healthy Oceans, stressed the need for an ecological transition of the shipping sector, pointing at figures of hundreds of containers lost at sea every year, containing chemicals, plastics, pellets and more. Building up on this, Adam Lillicrap from the Norwegian Institute for Water Research, Coordinator of the JPI Oceans Knowledge Hub on New Pollutants, strongly emphasized the need for better understanding and recognition of pollutants other than plastics, which currently enjoy most popularity but might be well exceeded in environmental riskiness by many chemical pollutants. He also stressed the difficulty of predicting the effect of alternate materials without sound ecotoxicological testing. Along these lines, Mimmi Throne-Holst, Research Manager at SINTEF and involved in JPI Oceans’ PLASTOX project, highlighted how different types of plastics have widely varying characteristics and toxicity due to their size, shape and in particular added chemicals. She presented how the PLASTOX project made a detailed assessment of these additives, their effects on marine organisms, and their role as a possible vector for other pollutants. The greatest challenge, she argued, lies in the consideration of the cumulative risks from environmental stressors.
Fazilet Cinaralp, Secretary General European Tyre & Rubber Manufacturers Association, emphasized the strong commitment of ETRMA and the tyre industry to find solutions to tyre-related ocean pollution while not trading off high safety standards. She pointed at the need for inter-sectoral partnerships to capture the complexity of the issue and understand what exactly happens to particles released to the environment. The need for multi-stakeholder platforms was also strongly emphasized by Janaka de Silva, representing IUCN and the Plastic Waste-Free Island Project, who argued that while technical solutions and research are pivotal to tackle pollution, there is also a need for greater understanding of what civil society will ultimately accept and adapt to, and a responsibility to provide alternative solutions, creating real behavioural change. He pointed at solutions including circular economy concepts, knowledge transfer, local ownership and the funding of local initiatives.
A clear consensus among the speakers was that besides excellent research, technical innovations and social engagement are important pillars on which the effective solutions to this global problem rest.
In conclusion, MEP Catherine Chabaud, Vice-Chair for Climate and Governance, wrapped up the event by emphasizing the need for a cooperative perspective, and for the recognition of the ocean as a common good for humanity. She concluded with a message in French: Respecte ta mer! (Respect your sea!), as you would hopefully respect your mother (Respecte ta mère!).