22 July 2019
What does sustainable shipping look like?

By Gesine Meissner, MEP, (pictured)
Spring 2019


Gesine Meissner, Member of the European ParliamentThe terms 'sustainability' and 'shipping' or 'transport' inextricably remind us of greenhouse gas emissions, our carbon footprint and oceanic pollution.

We know that our oceans have saved our hide more than once in absorbing our growing emissions. The last United Nations Conference on Climate (COP) in Katowice calls for significant changes, but only confirms that we are far from achieving our goals set out in the Paris Agreement of 2016 - let alone the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 14 and 14.1 against pollution – because of political division, lack of investment and lack of a unified approach. In my last contribution to European Energy Innovation of spring 2018, I addressed the technical feasibility of Hydrogen fuel as an alternative for marine vessels, which should abate rising numbers of emissions and greenhouse gasses.

This contribution will address the parallel to achieving viable and sustainable fuel alternatives for marine transport: adopting new policies on plastic pollution and marine litter in our oceans. The effects of micro plastics on our oceans are largely unknown but its influence and that of toxic waste on the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 has already proven to interfere with natural oceanic currents, which capture and release heat and cold from our atmosphere. What we do know however, is that those plastics are not entirely biodegradable and that therefore the chance of plastic finding its way into our food chain and consequently their way into our bodies, is more than just a minor possibility

In 2017, the Commission enhanced its focus on plastic production and use to work towards the 2030 goal to ensure that all plastic packaging is recyclable by 2030.1 In spring 2019, the European Parliament will go even further by endorsing a continent wide ban on certain single use plastics. With an estimation of an astounding 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste entering our oceans every year, these steps are quite welcome and show progress in the right direction. These efforts have to span a wider scope, however, to cover more than just conventional plastic waste.

The next step therefore is to tackle marine litter. While shipping crews and seafarers are already obliged to correctly dispose of their litter and waste, more progress needs to be made to ensure adequate solutions and positive incentives against illegal discharges in the ocean. My work in the Transport Committee of the European Parliament and as rapporteur on the 'Directive on port reception facilities for the delivery of waste from ships' does just that. It encompasses two goals, to reduce the discharges of ship-generated waste at sea and to reduce the administrative burden on ports, port users and competent authorities, in an effort to combat pollution.

Concerning what is called ‘leakage’ of plastics into our oceans from unconventional locations or means, this directive offers three significant and impactful changes.2 Firstly, a 100% indirect waste fee, which ships will automatically have to pay at the arrival in ports, which means there is no financial benefit to illegally discharge waste instead of bringing it into the ports for recycling or adequate disposal. The directive forces seafarers to deliver all of the garbage aboard their ship without being limited to maximum amounts of waste that can be delivered. More specifically, this fee concerns those elements which have been listed in Annex 5 of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).3 It includes household items, lighter forms of toxic waste, restauration materials and plastics. At the same time, this directive guarantees that those fishermen whose garbage is caught as 'by-catch' during their fishing runs can deliver this garbage to the port free of charge. This will avoid that fishermen throw this "passively fished waste" overboard again. Lastly, the Port Reception Facility directive incentivises Member States to launch a so-called 'Fishing for Litter' program to financially support the disposal of waste picked up during fishing runs.

To tackle fuel and chemical waste dumping into the ocean, this directive goes even further, by making sure that the Commission soon proposes updated legislation on chemicals and wastes that are not allowed to be discharged at sea, which should make the enforcement of discharge bans more effective. The Parliament has enclosed a revision clause for Directive 2005/35 on 'ship-source pollution and on the introduction of penalties for infringements'.4 It tasks the Commission with following up on changes at the international level. Aligning the contents of directive 2005/35 to MARPOL, which provides for clear provisions on the types of wastes concerned and covers the prevention of pollution of marine environments by ships from operational or accidental causes, will effectively strengthen these rules.

To ensure that discharge bans are correctly enforced, additional mechanisms such as the monitoring of the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) might be necessary. Their cooperation with European space monitoring systems, such as the Copernicus satellite, can pin point the location and ship from which an illegal waste discharge can be identified. This work shows that achieving sustainability in shipping and more broadly the sustainable development goals, to which the European Union among other states and entities are committed, calls for efforts on all possible levels: From the individual consumer, to the manufacturer and finally to the policy makers.


Gesine Meissner (MEP/ALDE) comes from the German state of Lower Saxony. She is the FDP's delegate for Germany's Northern and Northeastern regions in the European Parliament. She is the liberal group's vice-coordinator in the EP's Transport Committee and substitute member in the Environment and Industry Committees. Moreover, she is president of the European Parliament's Intergroup on Seas, Rivers, Islands & Coastal Areas (www.searica.eu/en/) as well as the Special Envoy of the President of the European Parliament on Maritime Policy. Maritime and transport issues are close to her political heart because of the sectors' immense importance for the future.


1 (2018). A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. European Commission, 5. Retrieved from: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/pdf/plastics-strategy-brochure.pdf
2 (2018). Proposal for a directive on port reception facilities for the delivery of waste from ships, repealing Directive 2000/59/EC and amending Directive 2009/16/EC and Directive 2010/65/EU. European Commission.
3 (1973). International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. International Maritime Organization. Retrieved from: http://www.imo.org/en/about/conventions/listofconventions/pages/international-convention-for-the-prevention-of-pollution-from-ships-(marpol).aspx
4 (2005). Directive 2005/35/EC of the European Parliament and the council of 7 September 2005 on ship-source pollution and on the introduction of penalties for infringements. Retrieved from: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2005:255:0011:0021:EN:PDF