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NUTEC Plastics: Roundtable for Europe, Central Asia Focuses on Nuclear Solutions to Plastic Pollution


Eli K. Vassenden, Vice President Shared Services at Grieg Star in Norway, discussed plastic pollution from the shipping industry perspective, during the NUTEC Plastics roundtable event on 7 October 2021. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

From food packaging and clothing to transport, health care and energy, plastic is an integral part of our everyday lives. Plastic’s utility and ubiquity, however, comes at a price. Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing global problems from an environmental point of view, said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, at a discussion last week with partners from Europe and Central Asia.

“On the basis of our experience and work that has already been carried out and through the technical expertise we have, it’s clear that nuclear techniques and applications have a lot to contribute,” to solving the problem of plastic pollution, he said at the event. “The added value of nuclear techniques is that they allow us to work in a unique, precise and effective way on two levels: first on the detection and identification of plastics, microplastics and nanoplastics in the environment and then through irradiation on the other end of the circular economy chain by allowing us to recycle plastic in an environmentally friendlier way.”

Around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated every year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, and in Europe, less than 30 per cent of this waste is collected or recycled. Without proper waste monitoring and management, plastics end up in the environment, entering ecosystems and threatening the health of wildlife, the oceans and people.

Virginijus Sinkevicius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, emphasized the importance of monitoring plastic pollution. “Better monitoring will help us understand origins and pathways, the scale of the problem and the impact on nature,” he said, in a recorded message. “What we can’t measure, we can’t manage. Without harmonized monitoring, we won’t have efficient measures to prevent and mitigate plastic pollution.”

At the meeting, the fourth in a series of regional roundtables organized by the IAEA, the Agency presented NUclear TEChnology for Controlling Plastic Pollution (NUTEC Plastics), which helps countries integrate nuclear techniques into their strategies to address plastic pollution. The roundtable brought together over 300 participants from 56 countries.

“The World Bank Group is supporting governments and private sector to improve waste management and promote circular economy solutions. Innovations, such as the one promoted by the IAEA, play a very important role to addressing the issue of marine plastic pollution,” said Berengere Prince, Lead Natural Resources Management Specialist at the World Bank. Prince and Sinkevicius were among high-level panellists, including ministers from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Portugal and deputy ministers from Estonia and Greece, as well as leaders from the private and non-profit sectors, who convened online to share their policies and experiences in addressing the global challenge of plastic pollution and to learn about and discuss the place of nuclear technology. Portugal will co-host the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon next year.

From the shipping industry perspective, Eli Vassenden, Vice President of Grieg Star in Bergen, Norway, shared that “the shoreside creates the main risk for plastic ending back into the sea. We must work to reduce risk and focus on collecting what is already in the sea through treaties and common efforts.”

The IAEA is spearheading an initiative to use radiation in the fight against plastic pollution. It is estimated that by 2050 plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish in the sea. Plastic pollution hinders sustainable development, and it threatens ecosystems, imperils food safety and impacts human health.

Partnerships for sustainable solutions to plastic pollution

More than 40 ongoing and planned IAEA projects support NUTEC Plastics activities. In Europe and Central Asia, some countries are participating in projects related to marine monitoring and/or are conducting technical and economic feasibility studies on the establishment of pilot-scale plants to recycle plastic waste using radiation technology.

The Institute of Nuclear Chemistry and Technology (INCT) in Poland is one of six IAEA radiation technology Collaborating Centres. These specially designated centres support the IAEA in the promotion of the peaceful uses of nuclear technology and help national efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). During the panel discussion, Andrzej Chmielewski, Director-General of the INCT, spoke of the need for solutions that are practical, both technically and economically. “It is very important that the Agency is establishing a platform of collaboration between countries and different Collaborating Centres.”

The Institute of Marine Research (IMR) in Bergen, Norway, is currently implementing projects with the IAEA Environment Laboratories in Monaco, which recently celebrated 60 years of addressing marine environmental challenges. The IAEA has worked with IMR to propose a global monitoring system for plastic pollution that will provide comprehensive, harmonized data for environmental, social and economic assessments. “We seek partnerships and international collaborations to understand observations made in the field and the laboratory,” said Michael Bank, Senior Scientist at IMR. “Monitoring plastics can support ocean health initiatives, especially for countries that rely on fish for nutritional security and economic stability.” Details about the proposed Global Plastic Observation System are given in a paper published in May in the Environmental Science & Technology journal.

Mats Svensson, Director of Department for Marine Management at the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management (SwAM), shared how Sweden has actively supported targets for the reduction of marine litter and is developing regional monitoring measures, particularly for the Baltic Sea and northeast Atlantic. IAEA Director General Grossi acknowledged the ongoing efforts within the region and thanked Sweden for its 2 million Swedish krona (around €200 000) to NUTEC Plastics, as part of its longstanding partnership with the IAEA to address global challenges.

In May, Sweden, along with Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and the United States of America, formally approved the first action plan for the Arctic region to address plastic pollution. “The Regional Action Plan addresses both sea and land-based activities, focusing on Arctic-specific marine litter sources and pathways that will play an important role in demonstrating Arctic States’ stewardship efforts towards reducing the negative impacts of marine litter, including microplastics, to the Arctic marine environment,” said Halla Hrund Logadottir, Director General of Iceland’s National Energy Authority.

Joining forces with the private sector, Beyond Plastic Med (BeMed), an initiative of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, created a Business College – a multi-stakeholder collaborative space. “Member companies work with an expert panel of NGOs and foundations, in order to unite and support companies in the Mediterranean region towards the implementation of concrete solutions,” said Olivier Wenden, Vice President and CEO of the foundation.

Major policy instruments and programmes, as well as technical capacity in R&D, exist in Europe and Central Asia. The IAEA is conducting a survey on plastic waste management to establish a baseline that will support the design of a future NUTEC technical cooperation project to address country needs. “We do not want to reinvent the wheel. We want to be an effective partner that is going to bring results you want in a faster, cheaper, more effective way,” Grossi said. “It’s time for action.”

The earlier roundtables examined the situation of plastic pollution in the other regions: Asia and the Pacific, North, Central and South America and the Caribbean and Africa.

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