We can put an end to the pollution

that threatens our planet and our health

February 23, 2022

By Virginijus Sinkevičius

Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries at the European Commission

IMAGE: European Commission

The last two years saw the world take decisive action to contain COVID 19. The fight is not yet over, but we have seen people show solidarity, responsibility and courage—and it has paid off as thousands of lives were saved. While we are all tired of isolation and uncertainty, we have also seen the world transform in front of our eyes. And the task of making our world healthy will not be done until we address the problem at the source.


As we are scrambling to contain the pandemic, the clock has not stopped ticking on other threats. The impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution continue in a vicious circle. Just recently, the World Health Organization warned about more than tens of thousands of tons of medical waste – much of it plastic waste – threatening human and environmental health worldwide as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.


These challenges call for decisive action. We know what causes them: unsustainable economic models and our excessive use of natural resources. The triple planetary crisis of climate, nature and pollution – and I do not use the word crisis lightly – threatens our health, our economy, and our daily lives. We need to turn things around and our window to act is the next decade.


The good news is that we also know what to do. The European Green Deal is the EU’s response to this triple crisis. It’s a strategy for changing the way we run our economies: for moving to a circular economy, putting nature on a path to recovery, decarbonising, and tackling pollution.


Pollution may be the environmental issue closest to all of us, and for a simple reason: it damages our health. In the EU alone, one in eight premature deaths is linked to environmental pollution. 90% of these deaths are due to chronic diseases, most often cancer. A recent environmental report by the United Nations underlines that pollution from pesticides, plastics, and electronic waste causes at least 9 million premature deaths a year. These are more than the deaths caused by Covid-19, a fact that should help us understand the gravity of the issue.


The fight against pollution is also a fight for fairness. The most vulnerable groups are hit the hardest – pollution is most dangerous for children, people with medical conditions and disabilities, older people and those living in poorer socio-economic conditions. As dangerous to nature as it is to people, pollution is one of the main causes of biodiversity loss and threatens the survival of more than one million of the planet’s estimated eight million plant and animal species.


So what are we working on right now to face this major problem of our time?


We are rolling out our Zero Pollution Action Plan.


It outlines our objective for 2050: to reduce pollution to levels that are no longer harmful for humans and nature and respect the boundaries of our planet. We are looking at all policies that concern sources of pollution and identifying gaps in legislation or implementation. On the path to the zero pollution future, we have clear, quantified targets for 2030 for various types of pollution, and a package of actions, to turn things around fast.


Pollution comes through air, water and soil and takes many forms, including plastic waste and dangerous chemicals. We might not often see it with the naked eye, and this is why it is easy to forget about it in our everyday life. What’s most important is that the EU is not underestimating it and takes measures to prevent it at source and make our air and soils healthier, our water cleaner, and fight its accumulation in the environment.


Clean air is essential to our health and to the environment; however, air pollution from transport, agriculture, and heating is still considerable despite some progress. Air pollution is the number one environmental health problem in the EU – causing around 400,000 premature deaths every year. It also damages the environment and ecosystems through nitrogen pollution. Air pollution comes with an astronomical bill: it costs health and economic activities an estimated €330 to €940 billion per year in the EU, including lost workdays, healthcare costs, crop yield loss and damage to buildings. Just think of all other possible ways we could be investing these huge amounts of money!


In response to the issue of air pollution, we will soon revise our EU air quality law and our law that tackles industrial emissions and will propose new emission standards for road transport. Through these, the industry and transport will become much cleaner and greener.


Perhaps the most visible and ugliest reminder of our unsustainable and wasteful production and consumption habits is plastic pollution. By 2050, plastics could account for 20% of oil consumption, 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, and there could be more plastics than fish in the ocean. With around 80% of marine litter consisting of plastic, this global scourge is putting the marine ecosystem under threat and is killing marine life. In the North-East Atlantic, 93% of fulmar birds assessed had ingested plastic. Corals are 89% more likely to develop disease when in contact with plastic. This is very much a European problem, as we can all see every day. Almost 26 million tons of plastic waste is generated in Europe alone every year, and 87% of Europeans are worried about the impact of plastic products on the environment. The EU is responding to this public concern. Our priorities are both decreasing plastic pollution (such as marine litter), and increasing the rates of recycling. We want to transform the way plastic products are designed, produced, used and recycled in the EU and keep these materials – and their value – in the economy for as long as possible.


In 2019, we received very high support for launching our legislation specifically against single-use plastics. It tackles the 10 single-use plastic items and fishing gear most commonly found on Europe’s beaches, banning some and introducing clear labelling requirements for others.


Moreover, we have set the target of reducing waste and plastic litter at sea by 50% and microplastics released into the environment by 30% by 2030. Action on microplastics – restricting intentionally added microplastics and increasing the capture of microplastics at all relevant stages of the product lifecycle – is essential, and we are working on a new policy framework to address that. We are also working on a clear policy framework for bio-based, compostable and biodegradable plastics in 2022. This will foster greater consistency in developing our European policies, reduce consumer confusion, and enhance investment certainty within the internal market. Finally, we will be revising our laws regarding packaging and packaging waste to reinforce the essential requirements for packaging to be placed on the EU market.


Globally, the EU drives the negotiations of a new legally binding international agreement on plastics that takes a circular, life-cycle approach to plastics. This is the only efficient, effective and long-term response to the problem of marine litter, and a more circular plastics industry. Together with like-minded countries, the EU is calling for the launch of the negotiations on the global agreement at the 5th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA5.2) in early March.


Pollution also affects the ground we walk on. Soil is an essential ecosystem containing more than 25% of all living organisms on the planet. It provides food, biomass, and fibres and regulates water, carbon, and nutrient cycles, making life possible. Healthy soils are essential for achieving climate neutrality, a clean and circular economy, reversing biodiversity loss, providing healthy food, safeguarding human health, and halting desertification and land degradation. However, 70% of European soils are degraded, suffering from a number of pressures, including pollution. Last year, we adopted our first-ever Soil Strategy – setting a vision and objectives to achieve healthy soils by 2050, with concrete actions by 2030. We also announced a new Soil Health Law by 2023 to ensure a level playing field and a high environmental and health protection level.


Many more proposals are in the pipeline to ensure we make our zero pollution ambition a reality. For example, we are revising the lists of problematic substances in surface water and groundwater and will strengthen our legislation on Urban Wastewater Treatment. By the end of March, we aim to adopt an EU Strategy for Sustainable Textiles to boost the competitiveness, sustainability and resilience of the EU textiles industry.


Worldwide, a full lorry of textiles is incinerated or landfilled every second. Estimates indicate that less than 1% of all textiles worldwide are recycled into new textiles. So we need new business models that stimulate the production of high quality, durable, repairable and recyclable textiles, boost textile sorting, reuse and recycling and encourage sustainable choices.


We believe that both Europeans and the industry are ready for this change: in all recent visits I paid around Europe, I saw so many visionary initiatives by bigger players but also smaller businesses that aim to make the fashion industry kinder to the planet. People now see the impact of fast fashion on the planet and demand a change. It is time to concretely work on the whole production flow and reduce its footprint. It is not just about recycling and repairing but also about rethinking our consumption patterns.


With new Green Deal measures on textiles, plastics, air, soil and water, the EU is leading by example, setting high social and environmental standards to improve people’s lives and health. But pollution does not stop at borders, and this is why our zero pollution plan calls for action by every country and every business.


The pandemic has highlighted the deep connections between psychological, physical, social and natural health. It has also shown how our personal wellbeing is profoundly dependent on natural ecosystems and the quality of social relations. It is important to recognise these connections if we want to live better. And we can live better if human and natural wellbeing – rather than continuous growth in production and consumption- are prioritised by our governments, our companies, and our institutions.


This is the 2050 vision that brings me to work every morning.

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