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Less plastic, cleaner seas, healthier ecosystems

By Olga Aristeidou and Cecilia Calatrava

Plastic started out as a “miracle material” – cheap, resilient, lightweight and easy to use in almost everything we make.

However, its affordability and convenience are also what make plastic one of the most pressing environmental challenges today. Global plastic production has risen exponentially in recent decades. 

According to Drowning in Plastics, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme  (UNEP), more than 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced worldwide every year, with half designed to be used only once. Single-use does not mean easily disposable, however. When deposited in landfill or leaked into nature, plastic can take as much as 1,000 years to decompose. Discarded or burnt single-use plastics harm our health and biodiversity. And the problem only worsens when we consider microplastics, which find their way into the food chain and onto our plates.

Our seas and oceans are home to a large amount of plastic, too. An estimated 19-23 million tonnes end up in our oceans, lakes and rivers each year. This threatens marine flora and fauna, as well as the millions of people whose livelihood depends on the sea.

The theme of this year’s World Environment Day is “solutions to plastic pollution”. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has joined forces with several partners across its regions to help tackle the issue, especially when it comes to marine pollution.

Mare Nostrum

Oceans are essential biodiversity repositories, constituting 90 percent of the planet’s habitable space. Central to our region, the Mediterranean Sea basin is a recognised marine biodiversity hotspot and a vital source of economic activity for 480 million people in 22 countries. It generates an annual economic value of more than US$ 450 billion.

“The Mediterranean is the cradle in which our societies have been born and flourished,” says Adonai Herrera-Martínez, EBRD Director, Environment and Sustainability. “It is a source of life, wealth and prosperity, so its protection is of major importance to all of us.”

The problem of plastic pollution is prominent in the Mediterranean Sea, however, where the ecosystem is under threat from habitat loss and degradation, over-fishing, pollution – including plastic – and climate change. Unless significant measures are taken, plastic leakage into the Mediterranean Sea will at least double by 2040, according to a report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. 

At the COP27 climate conference in 2022, the EBRD, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Union for the Mediterranean, with European Union (EU) support, announced the creation of the Blue Mediterranean Partnership, which aims to foster the development of a sustainable blue economy in the EU’s Southern Neighbourhood countries in the Mediterranean region. Donors such as Sweden and Spain have also expressed their support.

“We are not only mobilising finance, but working with donors, beneficiary countries, interested financial institutions and philanthropies to support policy reforms,” says Adonai. “The key is to tackle the problem from all possible angles; that is why joining forces is fundamental.”

The Partnership aims to support and attract investments to the sustainable blue economy, the recovery of marine ecosystems and policy reform, prioritising innovation and including natural capital and nature-based solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation.

For example, the financing of wastewater treatment facilities, the circular economy and plastic waste reduction will help reduce the amount of pollution entering the sea, decrease pressure on fisheries through sustainable aquaculture, improve coastal resilience investments and reduce emissions through sustainable marine mobility. 

“The Blue Mediterranean Partnership is a call for action from our partner countries and the European Commission,” says Alexis Franke, EBRD Associate Director, Green Partnerships. “Sustainable development and environmental protection are at the core of our mandate, and we have extensive experience working with donors and partners in delivering environmental impact.”

“We look forward to joining forces with more partners to clean and preserve the Mare Nostrum, Our Sea,” Alexis continues. “Together with our partners, we are mobilising crucial donor support for the recovery of the marine environment in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and are hoping countries will pledge their support.” 

Another example of the EBRD’s commitment to keeping the Mediterranean Sea clean is its Environmental Technology Transfer Programme (ENVITECC). It focuses on depollution activities in the Mediterranean region by promoting the adoption of technologies for reducing land- and water-based pollution, wastewater treatment and recycling, and improving chemicals and waste management, supporting the implementation of the Barcelona and Stockholm Conventions.

The programme provides technical cooperation support and investment grants to public and private companies in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Lebanon, Montenegro, Morocco, Tunisia and Türkiye. ENVITECC is supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and is part of the Mediterranean Sea Programme: Enhancing Environmental Security (MedProgramme) (2020-24), led by UNEP and the EBRD as the two GEF Implementing Agencies.

Beyond Mare Nostrum

But our work goes beyond the Mediterranean Sea.  We have joined the Clean Oceans Initiative and are working closely with the EIB, Agence Française de Développement (AFD), Germany’s Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW), Italy’s Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP) and Spain’s Instituto de Crédito Oficial (ICO) to identify and finance projects in plastic reduction, solid waste, wastewater and storm water management in coastal and river areas globally.

As of February 2023, we had invested more than €2.6 billion in over 60 projects that stand to benefit more than 20 million people living in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.

An example of our work under the initiative can be found in Romania. With EU support, we provided a €25 million loan to a water utility company to help extend and modernise the country's water and wastewater infrastructure and services, and finance a water loss-reduction programme with a private operator.

The project will add 38,000 people to the water supply network and connect 105,000 people to the sewage and wastewater treatment systems in five regions. It will also help reduce plastic pollution discharge to the Black Sea. Upgrades to existing infrastructure will reduce leakage by 16 million cubic metres a year.

“The challenges remain significant, but we are working really hard to ensure that we reduce plastic pollution and protect our ecosystems,” says Adonai. “From protecting coral reefs to promoting sustainable tourism, from improving wastewater infrastructure to modernising maritime transport, these considerations are at the heart of our work.”

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