Microplastic Pollution and Maritime Concerns: Insights from EU Environmental Council

Environment - April 11, 2024

On March 25th, the EU environmental Council took place, in which European environment ministers held a policy debate regarding the European Commission’s proposal, from last October, on the reduction of microplastic pollution, preventing plastic pellets losses to the environment, as pellet losses are a main source of unintentional microplastic pollution. The main focus of the proposal is to cut down microplastic pollution, specifically attending the accidental discharge of microplastics resulting from the manipulation of plastic pellets. The pitch established a general obligation for administrators and EU as non-EU carriers, to prevent plastic pellet losses. This also includes best handling practices for operators, a mandatory certification system and a standardized approach for estimating losses. The European’s Proposal anticipates a potential reduction in pellet losses by 74%, along with mitigation plastic pellet losses and minimizing its damaging impacts, also the implementation of uniform measures across the EU is projected to promote fair competition among operators throughout the region.

On the other hand, regarding maritime transport, this proposal does not cover the plastic pellets losses proceeding from maritime transport. Even though the maritime losses do not occur often, when they do happen, the impact of these is very sudden and significant, causing negative effects on ecosystems and communities, as proven with multiple incidents in France and Spain in the last months. Regarding this matter, it has been discussed and is still an ongoing debate at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), of whether the plastic pellets losses form maritime transport should be regulated or not.

This issue mainly arose after the incident lived in the Spanish Galician coast on December 13th of 2023, when the Espiñeirido Beach awoke white, full of little white plastic balls. Following this event, similar situations have occurred in different locations of Galicia. The autonomous journal of Galia, Xunta, has shared that the total of pellets gathered from the Galician coast by the Regional Government, was over 3.640 kilos, this being only 19% of the of the total amount lost at sea. The obvious worry expressed by the population was that these plastic pellet losses have been demonstrated to be harmful for the environment, and for this reason the climate and human health. As an issue as well on the economy, affecting in a major way the different sectors, such as agriculture, the tourism industry and the fishing sector.

During this last encounter, Environment ministers argued that the proposal considered would have a more confined impact because of its unilateral European action, adding that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) should join forces with the EU. Within the UE members, on one hand Cyprus, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Poland and Slovenia, believe that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) should not be included in the fight for this. On this note, the Finnish Minster, Kai Mykkänen, shared his perspective assuring his support for the Commission’s approach not to include maritime transport in the regulation for the moment, and recalling that the alternative of reconsidering the possibility of measures at EU level is always an option, recalling that reconsidering the possibility of measures at the EU level is always an option.

The Portuguese representative, Manuela Teixeira Pinto, shared her point of view, agreeing that this discussion should be debated within the IMO, but clarifying that their task shouldn’t be shaped by what they’re doing. On this note, Virginijus Sinkevicius, the Environment Commissioner, told the enviroment ministers that the EU would never support a solution that endangers the European industry’s competitiveness, but that the Commission would endorse alternatives in accordance with the evolution of the IMO.

The actual holder of the EU Council Presidency, Belgium, brought this topic to the table on the last EU environmental Council, to have a better understanding on where the disagreement among the EU members regarding where this Proposal stands.

This Legislative dossier will be addressed again during the next legislative cycle following the EU elections of 6-9 June. It then will be determined if responsibility of the plastic pellets losses should be within the jurisdiction of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). As stated before, this debate is an important issue, which has a direct impact on multiple sectors, that have an effect on humans’ life and health, so the resolution of this matter and reaching a final decision is crucial.