The Spanish seas have a high concentration of so-called hotspots for biodiversity, which makes ecosystems extra vulnerable to external influences. Photo: Furious Germans. Source: Flickr.

FUF-correspondents, Interview

New plastic law in Spain is criticized by marine biologist

Studies show alarming levels of plastic in the deep sea areas around the Spanish coast. New Spanish legislation will be implemented to reduce the use of plastic, but it is criticized for being misdirected and insufficient.

In September, the Spanish Congress voted through legislation to influence the country's plastic consumption. The aim of the law is to reduce plastic consumption and tax the production and import of non-recyclable plastic packaging from other EU countries, writes The country. The law is a measure to comply with EU directives on disposable plastic.

But the new legislation overlooks litter in the oceans, says Pilar Marin, marine biologist at the interest group Oceana. Spain, as a sea-bound country, has a responsibility to set the bar higher than the EU's minimum requirements, she says. 

- There is a need for clear and more ambitious goals, especially when it comes to plastic products that research shows often end up in the sea. The law should not only be a declaration of intent but a robust tool for dealing with the plastic issue, both on land and in marine environments, says Pilar Marin.

According to Oceana, the new legislation has several weaknesses. First and foremost, the current legal text is copied from the EU directive and uses soft wording to avoid implementing binding decisions. In addition, litter in the sea is not sufficiently emphasized in the new bill. Pilar Marin claims that this is because the legislation is an update of an old legislation that focuses on plastic waste on land. She also believes that the most urgent needs have been watered down in the process, which has caused rigid measures not to be directed at the main pollution products, such as wet wipes.

EU sanctions for inadequate waste management

The latest statistics from 2018 show that only 35 percent of municipal waste is recycled in Spain. Because of this, the country was subject to EU sanctions the same year, according to EU Commission Early warning report 2018. Since then, the situation has worsened, says Pilar Marin.

Spain dumps up to 126 tonnes of waste a day in the sea, according to Oceana. In 2018, 91.7 percent of households in Madrid sorted waste, writes El Pais in an article from the same year, but waste sorting becomes ineffective because it is not supported by an effective waste policy. Much of the waste that is sorted in households ends up in the same land masses. Related which was published in 2011 in the research journal Marine Bulletin, believes that Spain needs a waste management system that includes a more efficient classification of plastic waste in order to be able to address the problem.

The amount of waste that ends up in the sea is believed to be partly due to the fact that every third Spaniard lives on the coast, partly because the country has an extensive tourism industry, writes Oceana. Before the corona pandemic, Spain was the world's second most visited tourist destination, with four out of five visitors heading to the coast. Several studies point to coastal tourism as one of the main causes of litter. Spain is one of the EU's leading maritime economies and is dependent on both fish and coastal tourism. These industries may be adversely affected by litter in the sea.

Marine ecosystems are damaged

Littering in the oceans has serious effects on marine ecosystems. Spain's surface consists of twice as much sea as land. The coastline is 92.4 percent surrounded by water with an average depth of about 3 meters. The deep seas that surround the country serve as a gathering point for plastic products.

The Spanish seas have a high concentration of so-called hotspots for biodiversity, which makes ecosystems extra vulnerable to external influences, according to a report from Oceana

Plastic littering is especially problematic in deep seas because lack of sunlight and low temperatures slow down the decomposition process. This means that the plastic products remain in the ecosystems longer. Photo: Christian. Source: Flickr.

According to the Marine Bulletin Several studies have found high levels of microplastics in several fish species. The studies have given varying results, but about 40 to 80 percent of the fish examined have contained microplastics. The figures vary slightly depending on the species of fish and where the sampling was made from.

- It seems that the extension of the legislation is only applied on land, but no one takes responsibility for what happens in deep sea areas. We have researched in many areas in Europe and beyond and can confirm that even where the human eye has not reached, the rubbish has already arrived, says Pilar Marin.

Plastic consumption is increasing globally

In the wake of the COP26 climate conference, the UN presented the report from pollution to Solution which states that global plastic consumption continues to increase. Up to 80 percent of global marine litter is believed to be plastic products and 94 percent of the plastic dumped in the oceans ends up on the seabed, shows a report on marine litter in Spain.

Degradation of plastic

When plastic decomposes in marine environments, microplastics, as well as synthetic and cellulosic microfibers, toxic chemicals, metals and micro-pollutants are transferred to the water. Uptake of microplastics causes permanent change and damage to marine life. It is also passed on in the food chain, but exactly how the human body is affected by microplastics is still unknown.

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