Europe adopts a threshold value for marine litter on coastlines and steps up its efforts towards litter-free coasts and seas

In September 2020, the European Commission published a threshold value for marine litter on coastlines, paving the way for litter-free coasts and seas. EU Member States’ experts have unanimously agreed that a beach will need to have fewer than 20 litter items for every 100 metres of coastline to stay under the threshold and achieve good environmental status.

One item of ‘beach litter’ is defined as any discarded item found on the beach over 2.5 centimetres in length. It covers small items such as cigarette filters, up to larger items like netting, ropes or industrial packaging. 

The beach litter threshold value was developed by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive Technical Group on Marine Litter; and the Plastic Busters MPAs partners IFREMER and MIO-ECSDE were very much involved in the elaboration process as members of the group. 

Silvia Bartolini, Head of Unit at the DG for Environment, said: 

“This first EU level threshold under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive is a major breakthrough, demonstrating the Member States’ commitment to bringing about specific and measurable improvements in the marine environment and to fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals requiring the prevention of and significant reduction in marine litter by 2025. Moreover, through its link with the EU Single Use Plastics Directive, this threshold illustrates the coherence of our policy making and our ability to respond to a global challenge with well-coordinated, science-based and concrete measures.” 

With this new fixed threshold value, EU countries now have a tangible objective for all beaches. However, reaching the threshold is not an easy task as, according to the dataset used for setting the threshold, 85% of Europe’s beaches currently have 20 or more items of litter for every 100 metres of coastline. 

Indicatively, in 2015 and 2016, the average beach litter quantity for all European beaches was 150 litter items per 100 m, with different averages in different regions:

  • 106 items per 100 m around the Black Sea;
  • 233 items per 100 m around the North East Atlantic and North Sea; 
  • 274 items per 100 m around the Mediterranean Sea;
  • 274 items per 100 m around the Mediterranean Sea. 

To establish the threshold value, experts analysed the first EU-wide dataset available for litter on Europe’s beaches, covering the period 2015-2016. The data are the result of monitoring carried out by EU countries four times a year and aggregated to give an overall picture of the level of litter. They amount to 3,069 surveys from 331 different beaches. 

Reaching the threshold value will require urgent, coordinated and concerted actions at all levels, combining pre- and post-consumption solutions that could reverse the increasing trend in environmental marine litter and plastic pollution in particular. 

The threshold demonstrates the EU’s commitment to fulfilling the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14.1 to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution by 2025. 

Read the full-text related report here