March 8, 2021
Due to their importance for the continued existence of humankind, saving the oceans was the topic of the video conference on March 8th. Climate change, plastic waste and overfishing have severely affected this ecosystem in recent years. Plastic waste in particular is a problem in this regard, as it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles instead of decomposing, thus spreading itself further and further; it can only be broken down very slowly. The guest speaker Gesine Meißner, chair of the national committee for the UN Decade of Marine Research for Sustainable Development, former EU parliamentarian and member of the EU initiative “Mission Starfish 2030” was invited by Global Bridges to answer questions and discuss possible solutions. Susanne Stampf Gräfin Sedlitzky, an author, journalist and TV producer, moderated the event.
Dr. Claudia Winterstein, in her role as Deputy Managing Director of Global Bridges, thanked everyone present for their participation in the conference. Since the Munich Global Forum 2019 was about space debris, she argued that it was now time to deal with the debris in the oceans and how the EU deals with this issue.
At the beginning of the conference, Ms. Stampf-Sedlitzky introduced Gesine Meißner in words and deeds and clearly explained the commitment Ms. Meißner has shown for decades to save the world’s oceans. At the beginning of her presentation, she made it clear that the topic is not only about plastic waste, but also about other pollution and climate change. The importance of the oceans for the earth’s ecosystem is enormous, as large parts of the water and oxygen supply come from the oceans. The oceans not only store enormous amounts of heat and CO2, but also hold great potential as sources of renewable energy. In addition, human interventions would result in the habitats of many aquatic organisms being destroyed, which would severely impair biodiversity.
The amount of plastic waste that is currently in the oceans is enormous and growing steadily. A large trash vortex alone is as big as half of Europe, and there are several large vortices. However, this is only a small part of the plastic waste, most of which breaks down into tiny plastic particles and sinks to the sea floor. Large amounts of plastic can be found even in the deepest sea trenches and in the ice of the Arctic. Ms. Meißner emphasised at this point that saving the seas is sustainable in every respect and that their progressing destruction will cause massive ecological and financial damage in the long term.
With large interdisciplinary initiatives such as “Mission: Plastic Free Ocean”, the EU is trying to bring about a rethink in research and industry in order to prevent the increasing littering of the oceans. Ms. Meißner compared this initiative with the moon mission of 1969, because although it is highly complex and future-oriented, there is a desire for progress in the scientific community and the general population. Nevertheless, one must keep in mind that Europe is responsible for a lot of plastic waste, especially in the Mediterranean and the North Sea.
When asked about what her field of activity looks like, Ms. Meißner explained that she brings together all the involved and affected groups, such as marine researchers, ship owners or offshore energy entrepreneurs, in order to make the population aware of the indispensability of their work and thus the importance of marine protection. At conferences such as the annual “Our Ocean” conference, she meets with representatives from research, politics and business from all over the world to discuss how problems should be tackled. There, these various stakeholders also commit to specific measures that have to be implemented within a year.
One of the main goals of the “Starfish 2030 Mission” is not only to solve the garbage problem, but also to create sustainable working methods for the many different professional fields that are directly related to the sea. In addition, there is too little public attention and research for these problems, which is why public relations initiatives and support for marine research are essential components of the mission. The five main goals of “Mission Starfish 2030”, which are represented by the five arms of the starfish on the logo, are the regeneration of marine and freshwater ecosystems, the decarbonisation of the oceans, an improvement in international cooperation in these topics, the cleaning of the oceans, and creating public awareness of these issues. These goals are to be achieved, among other things, with the creation of marine protection zones and environmental shipping regulations.
In the question and answer session following the presentation, the question was asked what restrictions the population would have to reckon with in order to achieve these goals. Ms. Meißner made it clear that it is always attempted to find a compromise between economic, social and ecological aspects. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that rapid changes are possible, exemplified by the clear water in the Venice lagoon for the first time in decades. So after the crisis, in addition to stricter EU laws on plastic waste, these positive effects should be held onto.
After a question, Ms. Meißner went into more detail about the public relations work required and emphasised that, in addition to adults, children and young people must be informed about the importance of the oceans at a very early stage, preferably in kindergarten. For these and other goals, however, much more money is needed than is available, which is why one also has to think about alternative means of financing such as crowdfunding. One of the reasons for the shortage of money is the disagreement in the EU, in which countries without sea access such as Hungary or Slovakia are refusing funds to such initiatives due to a lack of interest in marine protection.
Ms. Meißner replied to the question of how marine protection could be implemented in poorer parts of the world. Ms. Meißner replied that there are already initiatives in many African countries, but that available funds would also have to be used for technology transfers in order to find viable alternatives to environmentally harmful ways of working and living.
When asked what the “material of the future” after plastic will be, she replied that there are already biodegradable plates and cutlery made from corn, among other things, but that innovative solutions for the plastic problem are currently being researched at full speed. Some of these inventions are aimed at the use and recycling of plastic particles from the oceans, so not only the causes of the littering of the oceans are addressed, but they are also cleaned. At this point, the conversation turned to “The Ocean Cleanup”, a company of the Dutchman Boyan Slat, which is committed to freeing the oceans from plastic waste. Ms. Meißner named many other organisations that have similar plans, of which some of them are no longer in the development phase. According to her, start-up companies are not only supported by conventional subsidies, but the funds for marine research are largely linked to the implementation of developed ideas with entrepreneurs.
In conclusion, Gesine Meißner remarked that marine protection is a participatory mission and that every individual, no matter how small, can contribute to it. Ms. Stampf-Sedlitzky added that there was no more time to lose. Miss Dr. Winterstein ended the conference and invited the conference participants to a conference on April 12, 2021 on the subject of garbage on the African continent.