Debate - Act - Change 16-17 March 2016 Brussels (Belgium)
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Highlights PolyTalk 2016

Posted on April, 06 2016

What do we know about marine litter? What policies are being implemented to prevent marine litter and create a circular economy?
What is the role of the plastics industry in reducing marine litter? These and other equally challenging questions were on the agenda of PolyTalk 2016, a two-day conference organised by PlasticsEurope in Brussels on 16-17 March. With the title "Zero Plastics to the Oceans” the summit gathered more than 250 high-level representatives from the world of politics, industry, NGOs, media, science and academia to discuss solutions to marine litter.

The setting
It was Patrick Thomas, CEO of Covestro and President of PlasticsEurope, who set the scene in his opening speech at this year’s PolyTalk: "Marine litter is a global challenge that needs a global solution. We want to find the right answers to marine litter because our aim is for zero plastics entering the oceans. The plastics industry is an important industry to Europe. We have a key role to play in providing leadership and best practice. We all share the same goal: to protect the environment.”

Already since 2010, PlasticsEurope identified marine litter prevention, together with its waste management initiatives, as one of its core areas of activity. In 2015, the G7 decided on an action plan for worldwide efforts against marine litter. PolyTalk therefore was the perfect occasion to discuss the following key positions of the industry:

  • Any plastics waste entering the oceans is unacceptable, be it because of careless behaviour, inappropriate waste management or accidental losses.
  • Plastics waste is a valuable resource and should be treated as such.
  • The plastics industry is joining efforts with key players to support the generation of scientific knowledge, responsible citizen behaviour and proper collection systems.
  • Only joint efforts will make it possible to ensure that waste is collected for recycling or energy recovery.
… and also to exchange positions and share solutions to marine litter with politics, science, NGOs and the value chain. PolyTalk 2016 thus was the perfect example that partnership between all relevant stakeholders is on the way to act together to preserve oceans, coastal areas and lands. 

The contributors
The range of high-ranking speakers was and mirrored the claim of this year’s PolyTalk to address that marine litter is a global societal challenge requiring joint efforts.

From the plastics industry, it was amongst othersTom Crotty, Vice President PlasticsEurope and Director INEOS, Patrick Thomas, President PlasticsEurope and CEO Covestro as well as Mark Williams, Board member PlasticsEurope and Vice President SABIC who represented the industry’s point of view during the panel debates.

From the Non-Governmental Organisations, speakers like Rob Boogaard, CEO Interface EMEA, Marcus Eriksen, Executive Director 5Gyres Institute and Emma Priestland, Marine Litter Policy Officer at Seas at Risk reflected positions from the manifold regional and global societal movements that came into existence due to an increased environmental awareness.

Particular attention was payed to the political representatives like Bart Tommelein, Secretary of State for the North Sea, Federal Government of Belgium, Mehmet Ceylan, Turkish Deputy Minister of Environment and Urbanisation, Margaret Auken, MEP (Denmark, Greens), Marianne Wenning, Director, DG Environment, European Commission, Dr Karl Kienzl, Deputy Managing Director, Environment Agency Austria (Umweltbundesamt GmbH), Stefanie Werner, Scientific Officer, German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) and Ulf Björnholm, Head of Brussels Liaison Office to the EU Institutions, UNEP reflecting a wide range of political positions, and helping to bring discussions on global, regional and national challenges, opportunities and solutions to the next level.

Solutions to marine litter are not possible without including academics like Richard Thompson, Professor at Plymouth University, Andrew Morlet, CEO, Ellen MacArthur Foundation were essential to better understand and evaluate the scope, origins and impact of and solutions to marine litter. 

The debates
During the first day, discussion focused on the question if future work on marine litter needs to be focused globally or more locally, while the second day centred on a litter free society through circular economy to reach a sustainable future. Some key statements reflecting the positions of the conference discussions:

Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation acknowledged the importance of plastics to the broader economy. However, to address leakage and marine litter, there is a need for a fundamental shift in the plastics economy. "We need a global collaboration initiative that matches the scale of the challenge and the opportunity” he said. 

Solutions at regional level were highlighted by Bart Tommelein, Secretary of State for the North Sea, Federal Government, Belgium, who explained the efforts made at local level in the North Sea. "We are undertaking several actions, for instance, next weekend, in the Belgium coast; there is a beach clean-up initiative in partnership with ENECO”

The Turkish Deputy Minister of Environment and Urbanisation, Mr. Mehmet Ceylan also highlighted the need for a global action. "The sea and ocean waste is a mobile waste and actions at local level will not be sufficient. Today, Turkey’s government is working together with key stakeholders such as PAGEV, the Turkish plastics industry foundation, to prevent waste ending up in the marine environment” he emphasised. 

"This is one of the clear symbols of a resource inefficient economy”
said Marianne Wenning, Deputy for Quality of Life, Water & Air, DG Environment, European Commission. "The plastics industry has taken steps to raise this issue. However, we need to increase our efforts and address the challenge. The Circular Economy Package is an important tool in this respect”, she expressed.  

The evening

"One only protects what one knows”
While PolyTalk 2016 was all about sharing solutions and acting together to preserve our oceans, coastal areas and lands, the inspiring dinner speech by Roz Savage was mainly about a personal act of environmental heroism.

Roz, who gave up her life as a management consultant in London for 11 years, was the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, thereby raising awareness for the marine litter issue and climate change. In her evening keynote speech, she impressively described that she faced death by dehydration during one of her ocean crossings, how she braved 20-foot waves and being capsized 3 times in 24 hours. On the other hand, she witnessed the timeless beauty of sunrises and star-filled night skies, and encountered whales, dolphins, sharks and turtles nearby her boat. Being at one with nature for many long times, Roz knows with certainty why it is important to engage in a goal of "Zero Plastics to the Ocean”, and why – in the end – joint efforts are needed to preserve the highest good for all mankind, nature.

The speech still resonated in the participant’s heads when dinner started and many people used the networking opportunities to discuss the messages just heard and the solutions being debated a couple of hours before. Taking place in a very laid-back atmosphere, almost all contributors and listeners of the first conference day joined the evening programme and sized the unique chance to meet and greet lots of people with diverse backgrounds, but with the same aim in mind: stop marine debris entering the oceans.   

The solutions

On the second day, the key activities to prevent marine litter were presented and discussed in 3 parallel speed talk sessions on

1) Behaviour & Education

To prevent litter, two essential elements are needed: raising awareness to trigger a behavioural shift in society and proper waste management systems. Also, adequate infrastructures will help increase consumers’ awareness of the value of plastics waste. Several projects presented in this session focused on the main issue: how to prevent plastics waste entering into the aquatic environment by mainly educating people a better behaviour with waste. And a lot of synergies could be seen although projects were run by different stakeholders and varied very much in scope and target audiences. 

2) Waste management: Too valuable to throw away

Common misconceptions lead to forget the many resource efficient benefits plastics provide to our society. Plastics, even at the end of their life, are too precious to be wasted and should not end up in landfills and the marine environment. Plastics waste is a valuable resource. In the end, the plastics industry was calling for proper collection and sound waste management systems as well as responsible citizen behaviour to stop littering of the waters. 

3) Product Innovation

Innovation is key to provide solutions avoiding plastics ending up in the environment. Although closing the loop and improving recyclability of the products is key, consumer’s perception of recycled plastics being of lower quality is still a market barrier. During the session a snapshot of some exciting product and material innovations were presented and best practice examples of how to intensify collaboration across the entire value chain to inform mind-full product design which needs to shift towards focusing on the second or even third life of the product 

In brief

PolyTalk perfectly proved that when it comes to preventing plastics waste from entering the oceans partnerships are essential and everyone has a role to play in this endeavour. While it was widely acknowledged that plastics bring huge benefits to society by reducing footprints, securing food safety or supporting lightweight car design, it was also acknowledged that there is still a need to further understand the sources of marine litter and its impact. Thus evidence-based data on material flows – as presented in the speedtalks – is key to implement the right measures at the right time. Furthermore, raising awareness in the public is one major step to fight littering. As it is for sure a constant awareness raising process, cleaning activities on beaches, in parks and cities might not be solutions to stop marine debris on a big scale, but it helps to change behaviour and to educate people on how to behave properly with plastic waste. Politics in the EU are helping by implementing monitoring programmes, establishing regional action plans against marine litter like for the Baltic Sea and supporting many national initiatives and projects. And to get the engagement of the youth, UNESCO and UNEP are strongly committed to educating children to a better environmental behaviour. For Germany, Stefanie Werner from the Federal Environment Agency explained that marine litter is now part of the curriculum at school.

In the first panel debate on Day 1, Patrick Thomas pointed out that "turning off the tap” has to be the first priority as there are no solutions ahead to get rid of plastic waste being already in the oceans. Accepting this, global collaboration is key to share best practices e.g. on efficient waste management, especially as most of the plastic waste in the oceans is not coming from European sources. Thomas mentioned that therefore PlasticsEurope helped to create the World Plastics Council where for the very first time plastics manufacturers from China, the Middle East, North America and Europe discuss global challenges of today like marine litter, and share best practices and positive regulatory experiences to turning off the tap globally.

There is no single solution ahead, but with the global interaction of industry, science, politics, value chain, NGOs and civil society as well as the constructive dialogue and concerted approach driven forward at PolyTalk, it is hopefully in very short-time that the statement by Prof. Thompson from Plymouth University will come true that "it is possible to have the benefits of plastics without harming the environment”.

Further information

New website: Marine Debris Solutions
Parallel to PolyTalk 2016, the launch of the website was finalised. It provides latest news and information about industry’s involvement in the prevention of marine litter.

The Global Declaration of the Global Plastics Associations
To date, more than 60 plastics association in 34 countries have signed the plastics industry’s global declaration to tackle marine litter. Over 185 projects have been planned, initiated or completed since its launch in 2011.
For more information:

Operation Clean Sweep
The promotion of the Clean Sweep® programme is the result of joint discussions between the main organisations representing the plastics industries from raw material manufacturers; raw material converters and the flexible packaging industry (please have a look at the partners section). The programme was adapted to the methods of the plastics value chain to communicate and apply good practices, reducing pellet loss during production operation, transport and while transforming the pellets into goods of everyday life. 

The multi-stakeholder forum organised by the plastics industry to engage with key actors on relevant societal issues in a transparent and constructive dialogue to debate, act and change, was now held for the fifth time.
For more information: