Professor criticizes EU for not focusing on health problems caused by microplastics

The EU is putting a lot of focus into researching microplastic effects on Marine life.  More focus is needed on the health risks resulting from the presence of microplastics in the environment, says professor.

By Gacia Trtrian, Peter Skovbjerg Jensen and Nadja Dam Jensen

“The microplastic problem goes much beyond its effect on marine life. It’s everywhere in the environment. It’s also fine dust in the air. So it’s much wider than looking at marine systems exposed to microplastics,” says Dick Vethaak, senior specialist in water quality research, ecotoxicology and environmental health issues at Deltares and VU University Amsterdam.

An example of microplastics showing signs of severe health risks is artificial football fields. The artificial grass on football fields is filled with small granulates of rubber and other chemicals that break into microplastics, which can pose as a health threat.

The high concentration granulates that disintegrate into microplastics in these fields results in football players being highly exposed to microplastics. They are exposed directly through their skin when they make contact with the fields, but they also breathe in the smaller particles.

“We find a lot of cases with cancer in both younger and older football players,” says Professor Vethaak.

The professor calls for more research on the potential health risk of microplastics. Lately the Dutch football association had also called for more research on the risk of cancer connected to artificial grass, reports RTL Nieuws.

“Nobody actually researched what compounds that are in this. That is a big problem here. This shows that there really is a need of research on potential risk for humans,” says Professor Vethaak.

Professor Dick Vethaak thinks that the biggest issue with the focus on microplastics is that it is being discussed only as an marine environmental issue, and not a human health issue.

Visa-free travel for Ukraine to be decided

After the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) voted in favor of the Ukraine visa liberalization, the final decision is dependent upon the European Parliament and Council of Ministers. (Photo: own work)

By Rocio Salazar, Christoph Donauer and Hunter Frint

The Ukrainian government has completed the basic steps needed to qualify for consideration of european visa-free travel.

These steps included the launching of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) in September and making public an e-declaration. The declaration is an online system where public officials and politicians must declare their income, assets and other information that should be available to the public in order to maintain transparency.

Alex Johnson, communications officer at Transparency International Office of the EU,  said that it took them too long and several postponements to implement these new reforms. However, he thinks the e-declaration system is a step in the right direction and will help measurements of corruption.   

“This is a very good way to see if this guy has an expensive watch or an expensive car or a mansion with a spanish galleon as Viktor Yanukovych had, then you can contrast that with how much he officially earns and see there is something that has to do with corruption here,” Johnson said.

On September 26 the LIBE Committee voted to pass the proposal for Ukrainian visa-free travel onto the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. This means that by the end of October the decision will be made unless the voting is postponed.

Since the major changes toward a more transparent Ukrainian government started once they decided they wanted to be part of the EU, it is questioned if the political will is based on the visa-free incentives and strict EU requirements, or if they independently want to become a less corrupted society.

For Oleh Hrynov, second secretary of the Ukraine Embassy in Brussels and officer in charge of the home affairs, justice and visa dialogue, this is a fight that started with the Maidan Revolution.

“I think that Ukraine is more worried than the EU,” Hrynov said. “Of course there are some benchmarks like the visa-liberalization action plan, but we do these reforms for ourselves and our country.”

Denmark, the member state heading up the most recent EU anti-corruption programme for Ukraine, has been an active partner throughout the constant Ukrainian efforts to become part of the EU.

Niels Jacobsen, the counsellor on EU relations with Russia and Eastern-European Countries for the Permanent Representation of Denmark, said his country supports visa-liberalization for Ukraine.

“We discussed that in the European Council and with the Parliament, and the Commission has proposed to do it. And I think my country is for doing it,” Jacobsen said.

EU and Ukraine take new initiative to fight corruption

The EU and Ukraine have begun the formulation of a new anti-corruption programme to enhance transparency, which will be lead by Denmark. The programme is still in the process of design, but is expected to be put into effect at the start of 2017. (Photo: own work)

By Rocio Salazar, Christoph Donauer and Hunter Frint

The EU is enhancing its support in the fight against corruption in the candidate state with a new programme, the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative in Ukraine. As the least corrupt country in Europe, Denmark is in charge to implement it.

The proposal for this initiative was published this year and lays out a three-year programme to support reforms and is expected to cost 16 million euro. This comes after the Maidan Revolution and several reports of corruption among Ukrainian officials and a corrupt judicial system.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark (DANIDA) will be in charge of implementing the initiative as they have had previous experience fighting corruption with Ukraine. According to the corruption perception index (CPI) published by Transparency International in 2015, Denmark is ranked number one, for least corruption, and will be able to offer experience and expertise.

Niels Junker Jacobsen, counsellor on EU relations with Russia and Eastern European countries for the Permanent Representation of Denmark, said that his country stepped forward and they would like to work with the Ukrainians. Jacobsen said they have people working with Ukraine in the judicial sector, energy sector and government enforcing activities on anti-corruption.

“Corruption is systemic and corruption is undermining a legal system that functions, an economic system that functions and democracy as such, which is why the Ukrainian population at Maidan wanted another system,” Jacobsen said. “So we feel we help them with that in the EU and we made a push for reform in Ukraine and support for reform in Ukraine in close cooperation with the commission.”

According to Annex 1 of the initiative, there are three areas of support outlined in the action document published by the EU. These are strengthening capacity to prevent and fight corruption, enhancing parliamentary oversight and strengthening the involvement of civil society and the media in anti-corruption.

“Corruption damages the growth potential in Ukraine and creates distrust in politicians and institutions,” said Kristian Jensen, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Denmark in a press release. “This must be changed which requires political will and courage from the Ukrainian leadership.”

 

The Ukrainian perspective

The leadership in Ukraine has been undertaking steps toward a more transparent system in the last years. The new National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and a newly reformed Ministry of Justice, new laws and reforms make up the efforts of Ukraine to fulfill the EU’s criteria for the country to become a member state. Step by step, Ukraine is trying to become a more transparent country, with less corruption in the political sphere and in the civil routine life.

Vladyslav Lomako, first secretary of the political affairs of the Ukraine Embassy in Brussels explained the importance of this new initiative between his country and the EU.

“The anti-corruption initiative is one of the main purposes of our european integration policy, it’s one of the main features of our agreement of association,” said Lomako.

Even though the project includes an active involvement of the EU and a significant financial budget, Oleh Hrynov, second secretary of the Ukraine Embassy in Brussels and officer in charge of the home affairs, justice and visa dialogue, said he believes it is not a major turning point in transparency for Ukraine.

“I won’t tell you that necessarily there will be a lot differences from the previous reforms with this new program, maybe just some strengths in the support,” Hrynov said.

Indeed, Ukraine has achieved systemic changes. For example, the implementation of the new process of the selection of judges, that before were appointed by the parliament or inherited by a family member. Also they released a completely new system to register businesses, which now is done online to avoid the possibility of bribery or conflict of interest from the people being in charge of this process.

These developments were not done only by Ukraine though and they have since received other types of help prior to this from their EU partners, like Denmark, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and experts of civil organizations.

Media and civil roles in the fight

Other key parts in fighting corruption are a strong civil society and independent media, according to Alex Johnson, communications officer of Transparency International in the EU. Johnson said these two actors are important to achieve a non-corrupt system.

The improvement of the work of media and the participation of the civil society in political processes is one of the more thought out and detailed sectors in the action document that outlines the anti-corruption initiative.

Regarding the media, Oleh Hrynov sets hope on the initiative.

“It will facilitate and promote journalism investigations against corruption, so there will be control from civil society and from journalism,” Hrynov said.

Nevertheless, according to Hrynov, there are not yet any concrete plans for how media and civil support can be achieved, but he trusts the programme because he said EU projects are known for having a very good communication with the civil society.
Discussion of the details between the EU and Ukraine will continue in the following months before the scheduled implementation at the beginning of next year.

No clear definition of food waste

By Ellen He, Emma Tram, and Ida Maria Westermann

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Source: WRAP

FUSIONS, a food waste platform supported by the European Commission, has detected more than 100 different definitions of food waste among their members. The different definitions and measurement protocols make it difficult – and sometimes impossible – for the European Commission and the individual member states to make food waste legislation based on comparison of studies, systems and countries as these are all based on different definitions and measurements of data.  

According to Patrick Alix, Secretary General of the European Federation of Food Banks (FEBA), the confusion about the term also creates problems for the different stakeholders dealing with food waste.

“If there is no clear definition food waste, and it is not measured in the same ways, then we as food banks can not manage it correctly. Therefore, we want to eliminate the different interpretations of the food waste term that rules in the different countries,” says Patrick Alix.

However, creating a common definition can prove to be quite difficult as many different interests are at stake, says Marco Valetta, Member of Cabinet in The Health and Food Safety Commission:

“At the European level we do not have a fully fletched definition of food waste. Whether we should introduce a specific definition is one of the issues currently being discussed in The Council and The Parliament. One of the problems is that different stakeholders do not agree at which point of the food chain we start to consider food as waste,” says Marco Valetta.

EU: Food waste to be halved by 2030

Stakeholders do not agree on whether or not the EU’s goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent is enough, or if concrete and legally binding legislation is needed to diminish the growing amount of food waste.

By Ellen He, Emma Tram and Ida Maria Westermann

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Photo: Ellen he

The European Commission and the 28 member states have adopted a new Circular Economy Package to help European businesses and consumers to make the transition to a greener economy.

As a part of this package the EU has committed to the United Nations goal of halving food waste by 2030. Even though this commitment is not legally binding, the European Commission has set up a number of initiatives to achieve the goal. These initiatives mostly focus on knowledge sharing between stakeholders and creating common ways of measuring food waste.

The power of dialogue
According to Marco Valetta, Member of Cabinet in The Health and Food Safety Commission, these initiatives are the best way to encourage member states to tackle the problem with food waste in their own countries instead of imposing legislation from an EU level.

“We do not push member states to do anything, but we have a framework where we set goals and make initiatives. We are sure the member states will introduce their own action plans and national legislation. We’ve seen this happening in Italy, France and it is currently being debated in the United Kingdom,” says Marco Valetta and continues:

“For the first time we are changing the methodology. Instead of imposing legislation we want to focus on a discussion between all stakeholders to find the best way of addressing food waste.”

Less talk, more action
According to Annette Schneider, Environment Counselor at the Danish Representation to the European Union, the issue of voluntary agreements versus legislation is a political question.

Even though she points out that countries like Denmark has improved a lot on the food waste area solely through campaigns and voluntary agreements rather than hard law, Annette Schneider still emphasizes the importance of binding agreements on an EU level.

“In some areas it might even be better to set goals instead of legislating, but speaking from an environmental point of view, I think we would prefer some more targeting and force. We think that there is too much talk and not enough action,” says Annette Schneider.

Consumers are the biggest food waste sinners in the EU

Plenty of goals have been set by EU to diminish food waste, but meeting these can prove difficult as the problem is biggest at consumer level.

By Ellen He, Emma Tram, and Ida Maria Westermann

In Europe almost 90 million tons of food are wasted every year. Half of this food waste is produced in households. That means that each EU citizen in average throws out 92 kilograms of food every year. Although experts and policy makers doubt whether or not the EU can do anything about the food being wasted in our own homes, the different EU authorities continually work to diminish the growing amount of food being wasted.

Along with a UN goal of halving the amount of food being wasted by 2030, food waste prevention is also included in the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package to move Europe’s economy in a more sustainable direction. The action plan for the Circular Economy has already been approved in both the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

In June this year the Council of Ministers also approved a number of conclusions on food waste and food loss supporting the European Commission’s ambitions for a circular economy and recommending member states to take action.

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Consuming 2.0
According to experts there are several reasons behind the increasing amount of food being wasted in Europe.

A report by the EU food waste platform, FUSIONS, shows that more than 50 percent of food wasted in the EU is produced in households. That is more than the food wasted in the production and the processing combined.

Assistant Professor from the Department of Food and Resource Economics at Copenhagen University, Ramona Teuber, points out that the increasing amounts of food waste in the households are caused by the behaviour among the European consumers.

“Food waste is mainly related to our food management skills; how good are we at planning? If we are busy working,  then we prefer to do groceries only once a week, and then certain things, such as fruit and vegetables, get wasted,” she says and adds:

“Education and awareness is important, but it is not always enough. It is our lifestyle that determines our daily food handling and consumer behaviour.”

In relation to this it is becoming more affordable for the consumers to buy new products instead of re-using. This is caused by a number of agricultural policy reforms in the EU that have distorted the balance between supply and demand and pushed the prices down. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have raised concern about these agricultural policies, as they let farmers decide how much they want to produce.

Food waste is expensive – also for the environment
The amount of food being wasted in Europe annually is equivalent of 143 billion euros, concludes FUSIONS. Therefore, the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package has a clear focus on the economic aspect of food waste.

However, according to Magrete Auken, Member of Parliament for The Greens, it is also important to consider the environmental factors such as CO2 and phosphor emissions.

“The problem (with the Circular Economy Package, red.) is that the current Commission has no interest in the environment, and it shows that it is not something they are passionate about,” she says.  

Statistic from FAO show that the Member of Parliament’s concern about the environment is not without reason. Globally food waste accounts for 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gasses.This amount is more than twice the total greenhouse gas emissions of all American road transportation. If integrated into a country ranking of top emitters, food waste would appear third after USA and China.

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Inspiration between member states
In Denmark, it is mandatory for supermarkets to keep eggs refrigerated. In all other EU countries it is not. Temperatures under 12 degrees celsius extend the eggs ‘best before’-date and ultimately prevents food waste.  

This is just one example of the inconsistency in the food regulation laws between the 28 member states. Another example of this is the new law passed in France this year. The law makes the supermarkets and retailers responsible for cooperating with food banks or other NGO’s in order to use food that is close to the expiration date. This can possibly have a big impact, as 23 out of the 88 million tons of food wasted are potentially recoverable according to the European Federation of Food Banks (FEBA).

As several countries have already tested different approaches to food waste, one of the obvious roles of the EU institutions is to be a platform for knowledge sharing. This has already been set into motion both with the FUSIONS platform and with the creation of a new expert group that will meet in the end of November. This expert group will consist of representatives from member states as well as NGO’s and interest groups.

One of these representatives is the before mentioned federation FEBA, who believes that member states can benefit and learn from each others experiences.

“When one country takes action, like in France, it will encourage other countries to take similar initiative in dealing with food waste in their countries,” says Patrick Alix, Secretary General in FEBA.

Consumers to take responsibility
Common for both the European Commission, the European Parliament and various NGO’s is that they acknowledge the fact that legislation can only be made at processing, production, and retail level. At the same time, they point out that the biggest issue lies elsewhere; namely in the European households. Therefore the role of the EU is not only to legislate but also to share knowledge and provide information to all stakeholders.

“As a Commission we need to create tools for member states and others, because reducing food waste is the responsibility of everybody. Consumers and retailers can probably do as much as member states or we as the European Commission can by imposing legislation,” says Marco Valetta.

Entrepreneurial education is key to youth employment

Growth, innovation and network are important factors when it comes to entrepreneurship (Photo: Mette Højmark Mikkelsen)

The European Union has increased the focus on youth unemployment, and their solution to the problem is more entrepreneurial education. How it is taught is different across the continent, but Eastern Europe needs to improve, according to Przemysław Grzywa, Vice President of the European Confederation of Young Entrepreneurs

By Alison Bertho and Mette Højmark Mikkelsen

In spite of better economic days, Europe is still facing big problems with youth unemployment. Countries like Greece and Spain had a youth unemployment rate of 49,8 percent and 48,3 percent last year. The European Union is very aware of the issue, and they believe entrepreneurial education is the remedy.

To combat youth unemployment, the EU member states endorsed the Youth Guarantee in 2013. It is supposed to offer Europeans under the age of 25 a job, traineeship, apprenticeship or continued education within 4 months of them leaving education or becoming unemployed.

Part of the Youth Guarantee focuses on entrepreneurship as a solution to unemployment. The member states should encourage the schools to promote entrepreneurship and independent employment through entrepreneurial courses, for instance.

Erik Løvgren Brejner, expert on entrepreneurship at VIA University College in Horsens, Denmark, agrees that entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial education is a great tool for young people.

“Entrepreneurship is important to young people, because it gives them the opportunity to solve the challenges they see. They can work on what they want to change in the world,” Brejner says.

Changing the world
Brejner is also the project manager of ‘Entrepreneurship in VIA’s educations.’ Two years ago VIA University College was elected the most entrepreneurial educational institution in Denmark. Brejner says that the school wants to show students that starting your own business is a possible career direction.

“Our approach to it is that if you want to be an entrepreneur it is because you want to change the world. It is not about the dream of becoming a millionaire. You will be, if you focus on changing the world,” Brejner says.

Entrepreneurship is likewise part of the Investment plan for Europe or the ‘Juncker plan,’ as it is also called, which was presented by the European Commission in 2014. The plan’s purpose is to mobilize at least €315 billion in private and public investment over three years. The goals are to boost investment, to support long-term economic growth and to increase competitiveness in the EU.

The plan includes a fund which will support small and medium-sized businesses. It will, therefore, benefit entrepreneurs who just started their own companies.

Right skills are needed
The Youth Guarantee is there to solve the problem of youth unemployment, but also to prevent a rise in the unemployment rate again in 15 years, according to Rodrigo Ballester, member of cabinet in the Commission on Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. Ballester finds entrepreneurial education very important when targeting youth unemployment, but the right skills are also needed.

“We need to make sure that pupils get the right skills in primary school that will make them employable,” Ballester says.

He believes that the model of finding a job and keeping it for 40 years is not going to happen anymore. That requires the employees to change.

“We need to be much more adaptable. The employers want people who are flexible, critical thinkers, creative, people who are able to work in teams and speak languages,” Ballester adds.

Ballester thinks that entrepreneurship is all of the above mentioned skills. Furthermore, he points out that teaching entrepreneurship is vital on all stages of education, but that it must start early if we want to see results.

Hear Ballester’s opinion on the Youth Guarantee results and a young European’s experience with entrepreneurship in Denmark and the United States.

Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs
One of the key actions on entrepreneurial education is the Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs program. It is a cross-border exchange program, financed by the Commission on Growth, that aims to help new and aspiring entrepreneurs to acquire relevant skills. They are being taught how to run and grow a small business by working with an experienced entrepreneur in another country for 1 to 6 months.

Since 2009, the exchange program has provided over 4000 entrepreneurs with the opportunity to meet another entrepreneur of a different country. All the member states are part of the program as well as 8 non EU members such as Turkey, Montenegro and Serbia.

Italy and Spain have registered the highest number of outgoing entrepreneurs, followed by Romania, Greece and Poland. Habla Mihoub, project officer at the Eurochambres, justifies this tendency by the high rate of youth unemployment in those countries.

Diversity is key to teach entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship has become part of the primary schools’ programs in Denmark and other EU countries, but Rodrigo Ballester does not believe that there is one way better than others when it comes to entrepreneurial education.

“Entrepreneurship means creativity. The way you have diversity for fauna and flora, you also have it for human beings. The day we start saying that there is only one way to teach entrepreneurship, and we have to stick to that, I will resign,” Ballester says.

However, according to Przemysław Grzywa, Vice President of the European Confederation of Young Entrepreneurs, there is a major difference in the way entrepreneurship is taught in Western countries compared to Eastern Europe. He thinks that Western Europe does it better than Eastern Europe because it is much more practice oriented.

Entrepreneurship is still a new phenomenon
Grzywa explains that Eastern Europe went through a difficult period with communism, and that private companies just started to pop up 25 years ago.

“At that time there was no education and no knowledge on how to teach entrepreneurship, so people were more prepared and ready to work for somebody rather than to create their own companies,” Grzywa says.

Even though the mentality is changing and more and more universities at least know how to approach entrepreneurial education, being an entrepreneur is still a challenge in Eastern Europe because it was considered a bad thing to own a private business back in communism time.

“Young people were not really interested in running their own businesses because they knew that the life of an entrepreneur would be difficult. It has now changed, but there is still a lot to be done,” Grzywa says.

Greece and Spain are still battling youth unemployment

To fight youth unemployment, the European Commission introduced the Youth Guarantee. 9 million young Europeans have already been helped out of joblessness via the Youth Guarantee, but Greece and Spain are still walking with a limp.

By Alison Bertho and Mette Højmark Mikkelsen

In April 2013 the EU member states endorsed the Youth Guarantee, which is a tool to fight unemployment among young Europeans. The idea is that all Europeans under the age of 25 should be offered a job, traineeship, apprenticeship or continued education within 4 months of them leaving education or losing their job.

All EU countries have presented their plans for the implementation of the Youth Guarantee and remarkable results are already in. Since the initiative was presented in 2013, more than 9 million young Europeans have benefitted from the Youth Guarantee.


These are the countries with the highest and lowest unemployment rates.

Even though the youth unemployment rate did drop from 58,3 to 49,8 percent in Greece and 55,5 to 48,3 percent in Spain after the Youth Guarantee was presented, almost half of the 15-24 year olds in the Greek and Spanish labor force are still unemployed.

Denmark tops Entrepreneurship Index
Rodrigo Ballester, member of cabinet in the Commission on Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, recognizes that the numbers are still high in the two Southern European countries, but he sees light at the end of the tunnel.

“Do not expect results in 6 months, when we talk about education. It is about generations,” Ballester says.

The Global Entrepreneurship Index lists the countries that are the best places to start your own business, and here are Greece and Spain also lacking behind their European colleagues. Spain is number 32 on the list, while Greece is number 45 in the world. In the other end of the list Denmark is fourth in the world and first in Europe.

Mikael Bomholt Nielsen, representative at the Permanent Danish Representation to the EU, is not surprised by Denmark’s placement on the list. Nielsen says that Denmark has an entrepreneurial spirit and that it is easy to start your own business in the Scandinavian country. A new company can be established in a few minutes online.