While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become over reliant on single-use or disposable plastic – with severe environmental consequences. Around the world, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute. Every year we use up to 5 trillion disposable plastic bags. In total, 50 per cent of the plastic we use is single use.
On 5 June, we celebrate the World Environment Day (WED) 2018 under the theme “Beat Plastic Pollution”, which is a call to action for all of us to come together to combat one of the great environmental challenges of our time. It invites us all to consider how we can make changes in our everyday lives to reduce the heavy burden of plastic pollution on our natural places, on our wildlife – and on our own health.
More recently, leading scientists and policymakers have acknowledged that marine litter remains a “tremendous challenge” in almost all regions of the world, with clear impacts on marine and coastal ecosystems, with estimates of the overall financial damage to marine ecosystems by plastic standing at US $13 billion each year.
Plastics in the Mediterranean
The Mediterranean Sea has been considered as one of the areas most affected by marine litter in the world. Marine litter is an urgent concern affecting the marine and coastal ecosystems with their endangered species in the Mediterranean, with impacts on human health as well as the tourism sector concentrated especially along the shores.
It is estimated that approximately 80% of marine litter is land-based, and that most of it is made of plastic and micro-plastics. A majority of these materials do not decompose, or they decompose slowly. This phenomenon is particularly critical on the sea floor, where 90% of the litter caught in benthic trawls is plastic, and even more so on the surface of the sea, where that figure can reach up to 100% (Galil et al., 1995, Galgani et al., 1995 & 2000, Ioakeimidis et al., 2014).
According the report published in 2015 by the United Nations Environment Programme/Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP), an estimated 731 metric tons of plastic was littered every day in the Mediterranean countries. Researchers predict that, without management measures, the amount of plastic dumped will rise by a factor of ten in the next decade, and by a factor of 2.17 between 2010 and 2025 in the Mediterranean Sea itself.
Impacts of plastics on marine and coastal biota
Trying to investigate the interactions of plastics with the marine and coastal species, many studies have shown that a vast array of Mediterranean species are affected by plastics, mainly cetaceans, fish, reptiles and invertebrates (polychaetes, ascidians, bryozoans, sponges, etc.). Effects from the studies were classified into entanglement, ingestion, and colonization and rafting.
More than 180 marine species have been documented as having absorbed plastic debris, among which are various different species of sea birds (Van Franeker et al., 2011), fish (Boerger et al., 2010), and marine mammals (de Stefanis et al., 2013), including plankton species (Cole et al., 2013). All species of turtles living in the Mediterranean Sea are listed as globally vulnerable or endangered (IUCN, 2013) and have been found to ingest debris.
Furthermore, it is estimated that 250 billion microplastics are floating in the Mediterranean Sea (Collignon et al., 2012) which are all also potential carriers for alien, harmful species and socalled “invasive” species (Maso et al., 2003). The alien invasive species represent a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as human health and economy (Regulation (EU) No 1143/2014).
Impacts of plastics on human health
Microplastics (MPs) can reach the human organism through several types of food from sea, such as fish and mussels and especially salt. According to recent studies, microplastics have been found in several sea salt samples from different countries, indicating that sea products are irremediably contaminated by microplastics. For example, 21 different samples of commercial table salt from Spain have been analyzed for microplastics content and nature. The samples comprise sea salts and well salts, before and after packing. The microplastic content found was of 50–280 MPs/kg salt.
Actions to tackle plastics in the Mediterranean:
“Studies indicate that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the seas. We all have a responsibility to preserve the Mediterranean and avoid that it turns into a threat for us and for our future generations”, said Miguel García-Herraiz, Deputy Secretary General for Water and Environment in the Union for the Mediterranean.
Consequently, projects and urgent action have been implemented by international actors in the Mediterranean to address this serious threat, such as:
The ACT4LITTER project aims to facilitate efforts for tackling marine litter in Mediterranean Marine Protected Areas through the development of effective and targeted measures using an ecosystem-based approach. This Interreg Med programme project is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund.
More information about the ACT4LITTER project here.
Plastic Busters MPAs: combat plastic waste in Mediterranean marine protected areas
The “Plastic Busters MPAs” project is funded by the EU Interreg and will be implemented by the University of Siena (Italy), the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, Laboratory of Ichthyology and Marine ecology (ISPRA), and a wide consortium of national and regional organizations.
The overall goal of the project is maintaining biodiversity and preserving natural ecosystems in pelagic and coastal marine protected areas by implementing a harmonized approach against marine litter.
Visit the project ’s web page.
Innovative solutions to combat plastic marine litter
The “25 innovative and inspiring solutions to combat plastic marine litter in the Mediterranean Region” is a new publication of the UNEP/ MAP and the Regional Activity Centre for Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP/RAC), which is intended to inspire and provide practical indications to implement marine litter solutions in the Mediterranean region.
These solutions would not only benefit the environment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, but would also provide socio-economic development.
Download the publication here.
Beyond Plastic Med: a commitment for a plastic-free Mediterranean Sea
This project aims at supporting and developing a network of Mediterranean stakeholders committed to curbing plastic pollution, implementing effective and sustainable solutions and supporting research into novel alternatives, as well as engaging stakeholders and the public by raising awareness and disseminating best practices. Download the brochure of the project here.
Thus, in January 2017, BeMed launched a call for micro-initiatives involving all the countries in the Mediterranean Basin, in order to provide financial support to local efforts to reduce the plastic pollution on shores and in the sea. Eleven initiatives in eight countries started in 2017 and will end in 2018.
CLAIM: Cleaning marine litter in the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea
The CLAIM project is funded by EU Horizon 2020 and targets increasing pollution in marine areas by focusing on the development of innovative cleaning technologies and approaches. It will seek out new strategies for prevention and in situ management of visible and invisible marine litter with a focus on the Mediterranean and Baltic Sea.
More information about the CLAIM project here.