Topic of the Month October 2012


Plastic-free oceans are the goal when fishing for litter

Plastic is a valuable material that is, unfortunately, all too often treated as if it was worthless. Instead of being recycled, millions of tonnes of plastic – as well as many other materials – end up in the ocean every year. In order to reduce the volume of waste, rubbish is being fished out of the North and Baltic Seas and disposed of properly all over Europe. This “fishing for litter”, as it is known, has recently been introduced in Germany too – thanks the initiative taken by the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), which has been awarded a prize for this in a national innovation competition.

The Baltic Sea beach: Andrea Hentschel at NABU-waste monitoring on Fehrmarn. (Source: NABU)


Plastics are an essential part of almost all areas of life, so they can be found everywhere (link: Topic of the Month for July 2012). When it has done its job, plastic is not therefore simply waste; it is instead a valuable resource from which recycled products are made or energy is generated. Germany plays a pioneering role in this field in the international community. It is an unfortunate fact that large amounts of used plastic continue to be “disposed” of in the environment all over the world even though this is not allowed and that much of this plastic ends up where it does not belong, particularly in the earth’s oceans. Most of this waste reaches the oceans from land via rivers, while shipping traffic contributes more. The German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) estimates that enormous volumes amounting to 6.4 million tonnes of plastic reach the oceans in this way every year.

Most of the reports about the problem of ocean garbage relate to the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. In the Pacific, for example, there is a “garbage patch” between California and Hawaii that is as big as Central Europe and is in fact easily recognisable from space, as satellite photos reveal. Ocean currents create a kind of enormous vortex of debris here. A surface phenomenon in two different respects: plastic floating on the surface is merely the tip of the iceberg, accounting for only 15 per cent of the total amount in the world’s oceans. 70 per cent of plastic rubbish sinks to the bottom of the ocean, while the remaining 15 per cent is washed up on the coast – where it joins all the litter that tourists have left behind them on many beaches. Once a year, volunteers on Tsushima Island in Japan collect the garbage that is washed ashore there. Enough debris to fill 120 lorries is collected during each of these clean-up events. And Japan has more than 6,000 islands ...


Rich pickings: Also on Rügen of various waste is washed up on the beach. (Source: NABU)

One is tempted to think that Nippon is a long way away, but ocean pollution is a global problem – our local oceans, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, are not free of garbage either. An estimated 20,000 tonnes reach the North Sea every year. According to NABU, up to 600,000 cubic metres have collected at the bottom of the small but very busy marginal sea. The German Environmental Agency (UBA) reports that commercial shipping and fishing are the main culprits. Aircraft monitoring in the southern section of the North Sea demonstrates clearly that debris is at its densest where ocean-going ships ply their main routes. The situation on the region’s beaches is hardly any better: the pilot project “Marine Beach Litter Monitoring” that was carried out between 2001 and 2006 as part of the conventions for the protection of the marine environment in the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR) showed that there were on average 712 pieces of litter per 100 metres of the North-East Atlantic coastline. A breakdown of the rubbish found along the intertidal zone known as the Wadden See along the coast of Germany and the Netherlands was also made at this time: plastic (including polystyrene) accounted for about 75 per cent of the debris that was washed ashore, while wood, paper, board and glass made up the remaining 25 per cent.

No comparable studies have been made of the Baltic Sea, but experts have no doubts that the situation there is similar to the North Sea. In 2007, attempts were made as part of the Helsinki convention for the protection of the Baltic Sea (HELCOM) to quantify the litter problem in what was called the “Marine Litter Project’”. Random samples showed that there were 700 to 1,200 pieces of plastic per 100 metres of coastline. It is suspected that more waste reaches the Baltic Sea from land than is the case in the North Sea, primarily because of leisure activities and tourism. Shipping and fishing contribute to pollution of the inland sea as well, however, even though it requires special protection due to lack of water exchange. This is exactly the reason why marine law has banned waste disposal at sea for 30 years now.


A lot of work: On the beach you meet "Old friends". What man throws into the environment comes back to him one day. (Source: NABU)

The situation along the major shipping lanes is alarming even so. About one thousand underwater obstacles – including wrecked ships and cars – are marked on the marine maps used by fishermen around the island of Fehmarn, for example, which together with the Fehmarn Belt is one of the busiest waterways in the world. Barrels containing leftover paint, varnish or oil that have been found are further evidence of the fact that much too much is still being thrown overboard that does not belong in the ocean. “The control system and punishments do not appear to be a strong enough deterrent”, says Dr Kim Cornelius Detloff, who is responsible for marine protection at NABU.

Much of what lands in the sea is wasted there and, what is even worse, is bad for the fishing industry as well as marine fauna:
The dragnets used on Baltic Sea trawlers are 20 metres wide. They have a large opening that is dragged many kilometres across the ocean floor and collects plenty of unwanted bycatch too. In addition to the cod that the trawlers are looking for, such things as tyres, rubber boots, disposable overalls, plastic buckets and semi-rotted plastic bags are brought up from the depths of the sea as a result; apart from plastics, metals account for most of the bycatch debris. The fishermen are now responsible for disposing of these materials properly on land. This is an unpleasant and dirty job, but it is even more frustrating when containing holding, for example, leftover paint spoil the entire catch. Encounters with maritime debris can also prove to be expensive when the net gets snagged on bulky debris and tears while it is being dragged across the ocean floor. If it is so badly damaged that it cannot be repaired, it has to be replaced by a new one. Which costs around € 4,000, however, which is the equivalent of the value of 1,500 kilos of cod. It takes time for a small fishing operation to earn this much money. Debris floating on the surface is a hazard too, because it can cause damage to boat propellers or filtering systems, for example. Fehmarn fishermen have reported that a tarpaulin lost by a yacht wound itself around the propeller of their boat and damaged the motor! Last but not least, all the litter is a problem for the local authorities along the coast too, because they have to spend millions every year on cleaning ports and beaches.


There is serious environmental pollution too:
● Fishing nets that are lost or thrown overboard illegally often spend decades floating around the sea in an uncontrolled fashion and become a fatal trap for fish, seals and dolphins. Plastic debris costs many marine animals their lives too. They mistake plastic objects like lighters or toothbrushes for their natural food, e.g. small squid. Turtles often think that plastic bags are jellyfish. If a plastic bag then gets stuck in their throat or larynx, the animals are unable to swallow food any more. They starve to death if plastic they have swallowed reaches their stomach too – the material makes them feel full, but cannot be digested. Other animals die of internal injuries caused by perforated stomach walls. This is not unusual, as post-mortems of fulmars demonstrate that were washed up on beaches in the OSPAR region: 31 pieces of plastic were on average found in the stomach and intestines of about 95 of 100 birds.
● Another problem is that plastic does not dissolve; instead of this, it becomes porous in the course of time when exposed to sea water and disintegrates into increasingly small particles. According to Greenpeace, it is no longer just sand that crunches underneath one’s feet on beaches in, for example, Southern England. In the meantime, the sand contains 10 to 15 per cent plastic as well, which the waves and wind have broken up into tiny pieces. In addition to this, the disintegrated “nanoplastic” in sea water is becoming an increasingly strong competitor to plankton. Six times as much plastic as plankton were being found at places in the Pacific as long ago as 1999. According to the Algalita Marine Research Institute based in Long Beach, California, the situation has deteriorated dramatically since then, so that the ratio there is now 60 to 1 in favour of plastic. Marine animals, particularly filter feeders like shellfish, do not distinguish between plastic and plankton, however. 180 different species that absorb plastic are already known. If they are eaten by other animals, the plastic particles gradually enter the food chain, build up there and at some time land on our plates, e.g. in the fish we eat. Such a meal cannot really be welcome, particularly in view of the fact that plastic from the sea has undesirable additional contents: it collects pollutants, attracting toxic substances like a magnet, including polychlorinated biphenyls that have found their way into the environment and are potentially carcinogenic.


Collecting for charity: Dr Kim Cornelius Detloff, marine biologist and responsible for marine protection at the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), marks a collection container. (Source: NABU)

The “Plastic-Free Oceans” project initiated by NABU in the summer of 2010 as a contribution to national implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive approved by the European Union in 2008 aims to increase awareness of the garbage problem and to provide a remedy. The supporters of the project include the German Ministry of the Environment and the German Environmental Agency. Funds have been generated, for example, by sales of stamps with a 25 cent surcharge for marine protection.

NABU’s activities are focussed on collecting litter within the framework of the international “Fishing for Litter” project that began in the North Sea in 2003. The pioneers here are fishermen from Scotland and the Netherlands; in the meantime, about 100 sea ports are involved all over Europe. In Germany, “Fishing for Litter” is now covering the Baltic Sea for the first time. Fishermen from Burgstaaken on Fehmarn and from Heiligenhafen got involved in May 2011, while Sassnitz on Rügen was the third Baltic Sea port to join in April this year. A German North Sea port – Norddeich – came on board in August 2012 as well. The fishermen are not paid for the litter they fish. They benefit in a different way: whereas they have up to now been forced to dispose of the litter that filled their nets as unwanted bycatch via their own household waste system, they can now dispose of it properly right in the harbour via containers that have been provided free of charge by NABU and Duales System Deutschland as its national project partner. The containers are emptied and/or exchanged regularly. The debris found in the sea is then examined by experts from Duales System Deutschland at a sorting plant in Hörstel / North Rhine-Westphalia, in order to obtain more detailed information about its composition. The initial analysis has revealed that metal dominates by weight, but that plastics, textiles, wood and glass were also found in practically all the collection sacks. Detloff, the marine biologist, says that this was only a random sample, so that the results cannot be considered to be representative. The analyses will therefore be continued. A study is in addition to provide information about whether the plastic waste can be recycled or can only be reused to generate energy because of the deterioration in quality following exposure to sea water.

So far, Scottish fishermen have collected about 500 tonnes of litter from the North Sea. The “catch” at two German Baltic Sea ports totalled no more and no less than roughly 700 kilograms of litter during the first year of “Fishing for Litter”. It goes without saying that fishing for litter alone is not all that has to be done to get marine pollution under control, but no-one is claiming that this is the case anyway. The 700 kilograms are not a mere drop in the bucket, however, because they are evidence of a change in attitude, without which the long-term objective of “plastic-free oceans” would inevitably remain a Utopian dream. The fishermen involved are already acting out of conviction, but are making hardly a dent in the huge total amount of litter out at sea for the time being. What is definite is that waste should not be allowed to reach the oceans in the first place – and Duales System Deutschland claims that it couldn’t if it was disposed of or recycled properly. “Fishing for Litter” is pointing in the right basic direction – it is no coincidence that NABU received an award for this project in 2011 in the national innovation competition “Deutschland – Land der Ideen”. “In future, we intend to find further fishermen, local authorities and companies who are willing to join in the project. This is the only way for us to make really sure that our oceans have a clean future”, says Kim Detloff. And NABU President Olaf Tschimpke adds: “The objective is effective waste disposal at all German fishing ports.” And last but not least, however, the aim is to make the public aware of one central concept: that plastics are valuable, high-tech materials which are too important and too precious simply to dispose of them by littering the environment. GDeussing

For further reading:
German Environmental Agency / UBA (publisher): Abfälle im Meer. Ein gravierendes ökologisches, ökonomisches und ästhetisches Problem. 14 pages; available to be downloaded free of charge at