The special issue of Coastal & Marine presents some of the results that have been achieved by the CleanSea Project, the first European Framework Programme (FP7) research project aiming to support European efforts to reduce marine litter to keep European seas clean, healthy and productive. This entails improving the knowledge and understanding of marine litter composition, distribution and impacts and identifying a mix of strategies and measures to abate this problem.
One of the striking features of the CleanSea Project is the interdisciplinary and collaborative research with contributions from governance experts, environmental economists, legal experts, chemists, biologists, engineers, civil society actors, consultants, municipal government civil servants, and representatives of the marine-focused NGO, EUCC Mediterranean Centre. For CleanSea’s Project Coordinator, Dr. Heather Leslie, of the Institute for Environmental Studies at VU University in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, it is important to focus on society’s ‘blind spots’ regarding marine litter. “There are a lot of them,” she explains. “One can get locked into patterns of thinking, but if you want to make transformative discoveries you have to change this thinking. Being interdisciplinary is key. In our project we have everything from fishermen to hi-tech people to NGOs – people who would normally have nothing to do with each other on a daily basis,” she adds.
The marine litter problem is a highly complex one with no single solution. So far, counter-measures have focused mainly on clean-up efforts – in other words addressing the symptoms, not the more complex causes. “What is unclear,” she says, “is the link to more systemic changes like cleaner production or better waste infrastructure.”
According to Dr. Leslie, economics is at the heart of the matter. “Marine litter is a symptom of a linear economy. We have it because we are not careful enough with our materials and we allow them to, one way or another, leak out of the technological cycle to nature, where they cause more ecological problems at product ‘end-of-life’. We spend billions of euros every year convincing people to buy disposable items and items with planned obsolescence. Of course, people do not value disposables or broken, unrepairable items and these are things that risk being dumped overboard, either literally or figuratively.”
“It is here that policymakers have a crucial role to play,” explains Dr. Leslie. The aim of the policy ‘roadmap’ that CleanSea project team will develop is to help policymakers chart a course towards a ‘circular’ economy, in which resources are re-used. It may be a massive task, but for Dr Leslie there is no alternative. “There is so much litter out there. And business as usual is no longer a viable option,” she concludes.