The Mediterranean Sea is the largest and deepest enclosed sea on earth. It is the cradle of several human civilizations like the Egyptian, Greek, Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman cultures.
The Med is also a hotspot for non-human life, with 7,5% of global fauna and 18% of global flora, despite the Med only representing 0,8% of the global ocean surface. The Med is for instance the European spawning area for bluefin tuna and contains some of the last refuges for the Mediterranean monk seal.
Unfortunately the Southern European, North African, Near and Middle Eastern coasts are more populated than ever – 425 to 450 million human residents spread out over 22 countries, 7% of the global population – and heavily industrialized; the Med itself is a navigation crossroad (30% of global shipping traffic passes through the Med), a tourist destination (25% of the international annual tourist trade) and heavily fished (out).
Some major African and European rivers spill into the Med. The Danube is estimated to be depositing 1533 tons of plastic into the Black Sea – connected to the Med via the Bosporus, Dardanelles and Sea of Marmara – each year; the Nile could well be matching this number.
All these factors taken together result in an enormous amount of waste entering this basin. The human impact on the Med is probably bigger than on any other sea on the planet.
Together with the five main oceanic ‘plastic soup’ gyres (Indian Ocean, North Atlantic, North Pacific, South Atlantic and South Pacific), the Med is the sixth great accumulation zone for marine litter.
Mass production of plastic started after World War Two. The global production of plastics exceeded 300 million tons in 2015, China being the largest producer (27.8%), followed by Europe (18.5% or 49 million tons) and the NAFTA nations (18.5%). It increased twenty-fold in the last fifty years and production is expected to quadruple by 2050, taking up 20% of total world oil consumption.
Discarded plastics end up in landfills, are incinerated or get recycled, but, according to UNEP (the United Nations Environment Programme), every second, more than 200 kg of plastic waste are dumped into the world’s oceans and seas; the combined result of deliberate dumping and irresponsible disposal.
In 2010, 4,8 to 12,7 million tons of plastic were estimated to have ended up in the oceans from 192 coastal countries across the world according to Jambeck et al. (2015).
A quantitative theoretical model by Eriksen et al. estimated in 2014 that there are 5,25 trillion pieces of plastic debris weighing in the region of 268,940 tons floating in the sea, not including pieces on the seabed or on beaches.
In 2015, van Sebille et al. raised the estimate to more than 50 trillion pieces.
The estimates for both the world’s oceans as the Med vary widely; Eriksen et al. (2014) estimated the mass of surface plastic litter in the Mediterranean Sea to be 23,150 tons, while Cózar et al. (2015) estimate that 756 to 2969 tons of plastic are floating on the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, mainly fragments of bottles, bags and wrappings.
According to this Spanish survey, more than 80% of plastic items in the Mediterranean Sea fell into the microplastic category, smaller than 5mm, the result of either the breakdown of larger plastic objects or entering waterways in the form of granules, pellets and fibers.
The study, published in PLOS ONE and based on samples from twenty-eight sites across the Mediterranean, including the waters of Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, concluded that the total amount of floating plastic could be as high as 3000 tons, with plastic density estimates as high as one item per 4 m2.
The report confirmed that the Mediterranean has one of the highest concentrations of plastic in the world, with only the north and south gyres – rotating, plastic-collecting ocean currents – of the Atlantic Ocean containing a larger area of floating plastic. The next highest concentrations can be found in the gyres of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Also in regard to microplastics the estimates vary widely. Van Sebille et al. (2015) calculate the mass of microplastic in the Mediterranean Sea as varying from 4,8 to 30,3 thousand metric tons. What everybody does agree on is that the problem is huge, that it will likely only get bigger, and that solutions, in a world of economic interests and political compromises, are not coming fast enough.
A study published in November 2016, ‘The Mediterranean Plastic Soup: synthetic polymers in Mediterranean surface waters’, identified sixteen different classes of synthetic materials: “Low-density polymers such as polyethylene and polypropylene were the most abundant compounds, followed by polyamides, plastic-based paints, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene and polyvinyl alcohol. Less frequent polymers included polyethylene terephthalate, polyisoprene, poly(vinyl stearate), ethylene-vinyl acetate, polyepoxide, paraffin wax and polycaprolactone, a biodegradable polyester reported for the first time floating in off-shore waters.”
A Greenpeace Spain report – “A Mediterranean full of plastic. Research on plastic pollution, impacts and solutions” – launched on World Oceans Day 2017, found that 96% of floating litter sampled in the Med is plastic, that plastic has been found in depths up to 3000 meter in the Med and has been identified in more than 90% of samples collected from the deep-sea floor.
In other words: plastic is everywhere in the Med!
Neither the earth nor the oceans can digest plastic; we have to remove the plastic that is there, and, even more important, prevent more plastic from entering the environment.
In July 2017, I was the chief engineer for the delivery of a commercial tug. Part of our voyage led from the Suez Canal exit at Port Said to the Strait of Gibraltar, travelling the length of the Med. During this stretch it is extremely rare, even during the northern hemisphere summer, for the wind to be completely absent, but that is what we experienced over the roughly ten days it took us, and the surface of the Med shone like a mirror. A consequence of this very calm weather and sea was that every piece of garbage floating on the Med’s surface was clearly visible and the amount of it was astounding.
Around noontime, after my six-hour engine room morning watch, I’d normally sit – weather-permitting (and that was every day in the Med this time) – on the bow to relax, away from the engine and propeller noises, taking in the views, basking in the sun, sipping a drink and hoping for dolphins, fish or seabirds to pay us a visit.
Instead of at wildlife, I found myself staring at pet bottle after pet bottle, Styrofoam piece after Styrofoam piece, plastic bag after plastic bag floating by.
After a few days I decided to take my camera to the bow and to photograph the articles floating by directly in the path of our ship. The photographs accompanying this article are the result.
Looking at these pictures you have to realize that it was even in these circumstances almost impossible for me to see items floating more than 50 centimeter under the surface – let alone those deposited on the sea floor – and that perhaps over 90% of all plastic items found at sea are generally smaller than 5 mm.
Micro plastics are the size of plankton and widely ingested by larger marine life, potentially releasing absorbed chemicals into their bodies.
Larger plastic items – macroplastics – like plastic bags and sheets, straws and balloons, lighters and pet bottle caps, end up in the throats and stomachs of fish, marine mammals, reptiles and birds, choking them to death.
Synthetic fishing nets and long-lines, poly-prop rope, packaging straps, six-pack rings and the like can entangle fish, turtles, pinnipeds, seabirds and cetaceans alike, drowning them.
Most of us know these facts by now and most of us know what we can do to reduce our impact; but do we act on that knowledge?
-Do you refuse plastic straws, take-away cups, cutlery, plates, food containers and bags at shops, markets and restaurants? Do you take your own shopping bags, metal straw, cutlery and cup when you go out?
We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic waste mess. Plastic use prevention should come first, followed by reuse and then recycling.
-Do you buy the items you need without plastic packaging? For instance your fruit and vegetables?
In Europe almost 40% of plastic demand is packaging!
-Do you buy less stuff in general, especially throwaway and planned-obsolescence items?
Do you ask yourself before every purchase: do I really need this?
-Do you look for non-plastic alternatives? Bamboo toothbrushes, wooden toys, paper bags, …
-Do you still drink bottled water, softdrinks?
We can and have to each do our part. Besides that we need local, national and international legislation to prevent plastics from entering the environment and reduce the overall usage and production.
Only then clean-up campaigns – that should be designed in such a way that they do not harm wildlife – can really make an impact.
Suaria, G. et al. The Mediterranean Plastic Soup: synthetic polymers in Mediterranean surface waters. Sci. Rep. 6, 37551; doi: 10.1038/srep37551 (2016).
Plastics Europe. Plastics – the Facts 2015 – An analysis of European plastics production, demand and waste data. Association of Plastic Manufacturers, Brussels 34 http://www.plasticseurope.org/Document/plastics—the-facts-2015.aspx.
World Economic Forum. The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics. Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company 118 pp. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics.
A Mediterranean full of plastic. Research on plastic pollution, impacts and solutions, Greenpeace Spain.