WWF report warns Mediterranean at risk of becoming ‘a sea of plastic pollution’

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The Mediterranean Sea is turning into a dangerous plastic trap, with record levels of pollution from microplastics threatening marine species and human health, according to a new WWF report released today.

Coinciding with World Oceans Day, the WWF report “Out of the Plastic Trap: Saving the Mediterranean from plastic pollution” raises the alarm on the dramatic effects that excessive plastic use, poor waste management and mass tourism are having on one of the most visited regions in the world.

Bringing together the most recent data and scientific evidence on plastic use in Europe and the many ways in which it impacts marine life, the report presents a detailed roadmap of the urgent actions institutions, businesses and citizens need to take to stop plastic waste from reaching the sea.

John Tanzer, Leader, Oceans, WWF International commented:

“The impacts of plastic pollution in the Mediterranean are also being felt across the world and are causing serious harm both to nature and human health. Worsening plastic pollution will threaten the Mediterranean’s global reputation for tourism and seafood, undermining the local communities who depend on these sectors for their livelihoods. The plastics problem is also a symptom of the overall decline in the health of the Mediterranean and must serve as a rallying call for real action.”

Today, plastic represents 95 per cent of the waste floating in the Mediterranean and lying on its beaches. Most of this is released into the sea from Turkey and Spain, followed by Italy, Egypt and France, with tourists visiting the region increasing marine litter by 40 per cent each summer.

Large plastic pieces injure, suffocate and often kill marine animals, including protected and endangered species, such as sea turtles and monk seals.

Microplastics have reached record levels in Mediterranean Sea

However, WWF says it is microplastics – smaller and more insidious fragments – that have reached record levels of concentration of 1.25 million fragments per km2 in the Mediterranean Sea, almost four times higher than in the “plastic island” found in the North Pacific Ocean. By entering the food chain, the fragments threaten an increasing number of animal species as well as people. Key issues include:

  • 27 million tonnes of plastic waste produced each year
  • 70-130,000 of microplastics (fragments smaller than 5mm) and 150- 500,000 million tonnes of macroplastics (the equivalent of 66,000 garbage trucks of plastics) dumped into the Mediterranean and other European seas every year
  • the Mediterranean holds only 1 per cent of the world’s waters – and 7 per cent of global microplastics

“In Europe, we produce an enormous amount of plastic waste, the majority of which is sent to landfills, resulting in millions of tonnes of plastic entering the Mediterranean Sea each year. This contaminating flow, combined with the Mediterranean being semi-enclosed, has seen harmful microplastics reach record concentration levels, threatening both marine species and human health,” said Giuseppe Di Carlo, Director, WWF’s Mediterranean Marine Initiative.

“We cannot let the Mediterranean drown in plastic. We need to act urgently and across the whole supply chain to save our ocean from the pervasive presence of plastics.”

Delays and gaps in plastic waste management in most Mediterranean countries among root causes of plastic pollution

According to the report, delays and gaps in plastic waste management in most Mediterranean countries are among the root causes of plastic pollution. Out of the 27 million tonnes of plastic waste produced each year in Europe, only a third is recycled; half of all plastic waste in Italy, France and Spain ends up in landfills. Recycled plastics currently account for only 6 per cent of plastics demand in Europe.

WWF is urging governments, businesses and individuals to adopt a number of actions to reduce plastic pollution in urban, coastal and marine environments in the Mediterranean and globally.

The NGO is calling for the adoption of a legally-binding international agreement to eliminate plastic discharge into the oceans, supported by strong national targets to achieve 100 per cent plastic waste recycled and reusable by 2030 and national bans for single-use plastic items such as bags.

It also wants businesses to invest in innovation and design toward more effective and sustainable plastic use.

“Plastic pollution is too pervasive to be solved by one continent, one government or one industrial sector alone, and it affects us all. It is only by acting together that we can free our oceans, rivers, cities and lives from unnecessary plastic,” concluded Di Carlo.

The European Commission has recently tabled a proposal that will halt pollution from single use plastic items and derelict fishing gear.

Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries said the European Union is supporting strong international ocean governance and is aiming to prevent marine litter at source.

Click here to download Out of the Plastic Trap: Saving the Mediterranean from plastic pollution