The expert article by Małgorzata Matkowska and Rafał Rolka - Let's communicate project (Interreg BSR 2014-2020)

The European Union Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region supports the reduction of hazardous substances in the Baltic Sea.

Human negative impact on the environment is a fact. The ever-growing anthropogenic impact causes direct or indirect severe effects on whole ecosystems, biodiversity and natural resources. Environmental degradation poses a serious global threat, thus our existence relies on the condition of the planet. Many activities taken by humans are an important source of pollution creating long-term effects such as global warming, and climate change. The pollutants, i.e. chemicals and heavy metals, not only deteriorate the environment but also become a real danger and raise public health concerns when human safety is put at risk.

The Baltic Sea is one of the most polluted in the world, which threatens the quality of life for inhabitants of all countries around it. Man-made chemicals and heavy metals enter the Baltic Sea via numerous sources, including wastewater treatment plants, leaching from household materials, leaching from waste deposits, and atmospheric deposition from industrial plant emissions, etc.

The European Union Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR) includes Policy Area Hazards. According to the EUSBSR Action Plan, “PA Hazards supports and promotes macro-regional responses to global challenges related to chemicals management, sound chemical management and a better linkage to international policy agendas (such as climate change, biodiversity, agriculture, production and consumption). The PA works for the prevention of pollution and the reduction of the use of hazardous substances as well as for mitigation and remediation of historic pollution in the Baltic Sea environment. PA Hazards assists stakeholders in the projects or other initiatives for the development of measures and solutions in the field.”

The PA supports the development of suitable measures, practical solutions and policy recommendations for the reduction of hazardous substances. The topic is linked to the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission Expert Group on Hazardous Substances. The Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, known as the “Helsinki Commission” or “HELCOM”, is an intergovernmental organisation (IGO), a regional platform for environmental policy-making established in 1974 to protect the marine environment of the Baltic Sea from all sources of pollution.

Lotta Ruokanen and Owen Rowe from HELCOM tell about the Baltic Sea condition and necessary measures taken to protect it, in line with the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR) and its key objectives: saving the sea, connecting the region and increasing prosperity.

Tackling key priorities

The biggest challenge in fighting pollution in the Baltic Sea is to understand the extensive and diverse pool of substances in the environment, how they enter the environment, their impact on the environment (including mixed or multiple impacts) and how to minimise those impacts – including finding the sources and pathways and trying to manage the harmful chemicals at source if possible.

Key priorities in this area now:

●       Understanding what chemicals are in use and what ‘life-cycles’ they undergo.

●       Comprehending the number of substances in play and their potential toxicity.

●       Understanding their pathways into the environment.

●       Evaluating the real need for these substances and, if needed, possible alternatives.

●       Building an understanding of hazardous substances within a causal framework (inclusive of product life cycles) to act as a pre-emptive or preventative evaluation step prior to use/approval (more rigorous approval process).

●       Better quantification of toxicity and regional specificities of relevant substances.

●      Better information on appropriate recycling and disposal (and the negative consequences of not following such guidance).

Achievements in the environmental protection of the Baltic Sea

The Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP), adopted by HELCOM in 2007 and updated in 2021, is its strategic programme of measures and actions for achieving the good environmental status of the sea. One of the goals of the Baltic Sea Action Plan is a ”Baltic Sea unaffected by hazardous substances and litter”.

BSAP has resulted in a number of environmental improvements such as a reduction in nutrient inputs to the sea, a better state of biodiversity and a decrease in maritime incidents and spills. It incorporates the latest scientific knowledge and innovative management approaches into strategic policy implementation, and stimulates goal-oriented multilateral cooperation around the Baltic Sea region.

As of 1st September 2022, about 33% of the joint regional actions (90 out of 273) and 7% of the national actions (29 out of 428) from the Baltic Sea Action Plan have been reported as fully implemented by all HELCOM Contracting Parties. In addition to specific actions, the Contracting Parties also agreed to implement several HELCOM Recommendations in support of the Baltic Sea Action Plan.

Among the main achievements we can also underline:

  • Identification and monitoring of certain key substances (but a relatively small number considering the array in the environment);
  • Management and reduction of many of these key substances (though many are persistent and although not increasing any longer, still persist);
  • Initial screening to evaluate what emerging issues there may be has been recently started.

The future of protecting the Baltic Sea from hazardous substances – new technologies, innovations, general education

There is a common agreement that the damage caused to the Baltic Sea has to be fixed. Simultaneously, all needs to be done to prevent further harm. The goal is ambitious and long-term. The countries surrounding the Baltic Sea tirelessly join forces to face the challenge for a cleaner, safer and healthier sea. A lot is still to be done.

First of all, a transparent overview of substances used in industry and consumer products that may enter the environment (at the production end, during use and from screening in the environment) should be established.

Secondly, new strong legislation and economic incentives including the removal of harmful subsidies to remove or replace groups of substances of risk/harm from products and processes have to be introduced.

Furthermore, innovations in various fields raise high hopes for change. New solutions removing or replacing (preferably groups of) substances of risk/harm from products and processes are being most looked for. Especially Wastewater Treatment Plant improvements (technological and application) in particular focus on pharmaceuticals, as these are commonly not as easy to replace/ban due to human health aspects, are to be most welcome. This should be done taking into account that many organic pollutants and microplastics actually end up in the sewage sludge and recycling of nutrients in the sludge is desirable in a circular economy and when trying to get rid of virgin sources from outside Europe.

Finally, there is a general need for clearer guidance and education on recycling and disposal both – to consumers, companies and public administration. Public procurement is a very big part of product and substance flows in society. But more importantly, the recycling process at the local, regional, and national levels should be clarified to help understand the process – its role and impact.