EU Member States’ experts have agreed that a beach will need to have less than 20 litter items for every 100 metres of coastline to stay under the threshold.

One item of 'beach litter' is defined as any discarded item found on the beach over 2.5 centimetres in length. It covers small items like cigarette filters, up to larger items like netting, ropes or industrial packaging.

The beach litter threshold value has been developed under the Commission’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive. The Directive requires Member States to develop and implement strategies to protect the marine environment, covering several aspects, such as biodiversity, underwater noise and chemical pollutants.

The 20-item threshold represents a significant commitment to keep Europe’s beaches clean. According to the dataset used to establish the threshold value, in 2015 and 2016 many beaches around Europe had more than 300 litter items for every 100m of coastline.

With this new fixed threshold value, EU countries have a tangible objective for all beaches.

The threshold value will also contribute to achieving the objectives of the Single Use Plastic directive, which aims to reduce the number of beach litter items. It demonstrates, once more, the EU’s commitment to fulfil the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 14.1: to significantly reduce marine pollution by 2025.

This Goal opens the way for setting more thresholds, for example on sea-floor litter, micro plastics and impacts of litter on marine life.

How much litter is too much?

To establish the threshold value, experts analysed the first EU-wide dataset available for litter on Europe’s beaches, covering the period 2015-2016. The data is the result of monitoring carried out by EU countries four times a year and aggregated to give an overall picture of the level of litter. It amounts to 3069 surveys from 331 different beaches.

The report authors arrived at the fixed value of 20 litter items per 100 metres by taking into account the prevalence of different levels of litter on Europe’s beaches and the harm caused by litter.

According to the data, 85% of Europe’s beaches currently have 20 or more items of litter for every 100 metres of coastline. The chosen threshold value allows for a degree of uncertainty, inherent in the monitoring, while still being low enough to protect beaches from ecological and socio-economic harm.

Across Europe, in 2015 and 2016, the average beach litter quantity was 150 litter items per 100m, with different averages in different regions:

  • 40 items per 100m around the Baltic Sea;
  • 106 items per 100m around the Black Sea;
  • 233 items per 100m around the North East Atlantic and North Sea;
  • 274 items per 100m around the Mediterranean Sea.

EU countries will continue gathering new data on beach litter to track progress towards the threshold value. Reaching the threshold will require continued efforts, setting intermediate targets and using oceanographic modelling to identify the source of litter that travels across borders before being washed up on a beach.

The threshold value and underlying data is published in the JRC technical report 'A European Threshold Value and Assessment Method for Macro Litter on Coastlines'.

Background

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive provides a framework for monitoring, assessing and implement measures to protect marine life and reducing pollution, including marine litter. It aims to achieve a good environmental status of the EU's marine waters and protect the resource base upon which marine-related economic and social activities depend, while allowing for these activities to be carried out sustainably.

The EU’s framework for marine environmental protection is one of the most comprehensive and ambitious worldwide, and agreement on this threshold shows its ability to tackle predominant pressures, including beach litter.

The European Commission has contributed to the discussions about setting the threshold value by establishing common EU marine beach litter baselines so that litter abundance, litter category distribution and trends can be analysed at the local, national and European level.

The work carried out under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive was also instrumental to identify the most common marine beach litter items in Europe. This work eventually contributed to the adoption of the Single-Use Plastics Directive.

This latest report establishes a defined beach litter threshold value and sets a target for cleaner beaches across the EU. It was produced by the Directive’s Technical Group on Marine Litter, which is chaired by representatives from EU countries and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and endorsed by EU Member States officials. EU Member States mandated the Technical Group to develop a threshold value and assessment approach in a collaborative way.