World Environment Day – Beating plastic pollution in the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean Sea is one of the areas most affected by marine litter in the world with plastic comprising up to 95% of waste accumulated on shorelines, the ocean surface, or sea floor. Approximately 0.5 billion litter items are currently lying on the Mediterranean Seafloor while concentrations floating plastic are comparable with those in the five oceanic garbage patches reaching over 600 items per square kilometer.

The Mediterranean basin is particularly vulnerable to the pressures from its densely populated coasts, highly developed tourism, and 30 percent of the world maritime traffic crossing its waters, due to the low renewal rate of its waters. Items found on Mediterranean beaches appear to originate mainly from recreational and tourism activities, and household-related waste. Some of the largest amounts of municipal solid waste per person annually are generated in the Mediterranean. Current consumption and production patterns tend to increase the rate in which people consume products which have a shorter lifespan while inadequate treatment of goods in their end of life intensifies the problem.

Marine litter enters the sea from both land and sea-based sources, often indirectly through rivers, drains, sewage outlets and run-off. Lightweight single-use plastics are particularly problematic because they are easily transported, traveling long distances through the air and water. It may take centuries for physical, chemical, and biological processes in the oceans to degrade plastics to secondary microplastics that persist in the ocean. These may absorb toxins and facilitate microbial colonization, affecting the health of marine fauna and flora, and the well-being of humans as they enter the food chain.

“Plastic marine litter is a consequence of our current paradigm of linear use of resources and our inability to fully deal with the volume of waste this produces. It presents a challenge to society, to our economic and political systems to mitigate much more effectively and without delay marine litter’s damage in our oceans and to our welfare” said Mr. Gaetano Leone, Coordinator of UN Environment Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP).

Within the framework of the MAP, the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention adopted the Regional Plan on Marine Litter Management in the Mediterranean (RPML) in 2013. The Plan is the first-ever legally binding instrument of its kind. It provides for programmes of measures, implementation timetables, guidelines, and assessment baseline values. It also promotes cooperation through the establishment of the “Regional Cooperation Platform on Marine Litter in the Mediterranean”. The Contracting Parties have also adopted a basin-wide reduction target of 20 percent of beach litter by 2024.

The RPML obligations were transposed to the Contracting Parties’ national policy and legal level through the National Action Plans (NAPs) 2015-2025 endorsed by the Contracting Parties in 2016. NAPs include measures for the banning of single-use plastic and the promotion of Extended Producer Responsibility, managing sea-based litter in ports, and implementing “fishing-for-litter” and “adopt-a-beach” programmes. According to a report published by the Plan Bleu MAP Regional Activity Center, the introduction of a generalized tax on single-use plastic bags in all Mediterranean countries could eliminate 95% of incremental plastic bag waste and raise up to €650 million per year for environmental purposes. The EU-funded Marine Litter MED project supports the implementation of the five most common prevention and reduction measures as foreseen by the RPML. The Italian Government also supports the implementation of the RPML and its specific measures in the Adriatic.

Monitoring and assessment of the marine and coastal environment are central to the mandate of the MAP/Barcelona Convention system. The Contracting Parties have adopted the“Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Mediterranean Sea and Coasts and Related Assessment Criteria (IMAP)”, and are now developing and implementing their national marine litter monitoring programmes based on its provisions, as well as those of the RPML. The “Quality Status Report for the Mediterranean - 2017” is the first assessment product based on the ecosystem approach, and its 11 Ecological Objectives, which includes two dedicated chapters providing the latest knowledge on marine litter based on the “Marine litter Assessment in the Mediterranean- 2015” published by MAP.

The Contracting Parties have also committed to promoting a circular economy through the adoption and implementation of the “Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development” and “Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan, with a focus on priority areas that are main upstream drivers of pollution generation and environmental pressures on Mediterranean ecosystems. In this context, the MAP Sustainable Consumption and Production Regional Activity Centre, is co-implementing the EU-funded SwitchMed project, which aims to boost the circular economy by supporting social and eco innovations in the Mediterranean. The SwitchMed green entrepreneurship programme provides training, and incubation coaching while the “Switchers” community connects stakeholders and provides advice, financing, and networking opportunities. SwitchMed has supported initiatives such as the creation of fashion accessories by upcycling single-use plastic bags and the transformation of bags into panel board material applying patented technology. Similar case studies are presented in the report “25 innovative and inspiring solutions to combat plastic marine litter in the Mediterranean Region”.

The issue of marine plastics is receiving increased attention in global and regional policy agendas, including through Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Honolulu Strategy on marine debris, and the recent EU Plastic Strategy. Action Plans on Marine Litter adopted by the G7 and G20 have highlighted the important role of Regional Seas programmes such as the MAP to effectively establish and mainstream the implementation of coherent and coordinated regional basin-wide approaches, in the context of the cooperation among international instruments and initiative.

Aiming for the elimination of single-use plastic by 2023, the UN Environment #CleanSeas campaign is urging governments to pass plastic reduction policies; industry to minimize plastic packaging and redesign products; and consumers to change their throwaway habits. So far, forty countries, including France, Israel, Italy, Malta, and Montenegro, have joined the campaign which has also gathered over 87 130 individual pledges for action.

“Beat Plastic Pollution”, the theme for World Environment Day (WED) 2018, is a call to action for all of us to come together to combat one of the great environmental challenges of our time, inviting us to consider how we can make changes in our everyday lives to reduce the heavy burden of plastic pollution on our natural environment, biodiversity, and our own health: “If you can’t re-use it, refuse it!”. Citizens of the world are invited to take part in beach cleanups and other activities among the hundreds of events organized for the celebration of WED including a social media game of #BeatPlasticPollution tag.

Date of Article: 
Monday, June 4, 2018