The implementation of effective policies at local and regional level, and the cooperation of all countries in the Mediterranean Sea basin is urgently needed to successfully reverse the environmental problems in this marine area. This is evidenced by a report carried out by the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) presented in the European Parliament by oceanographer Patrizia Ziveri, who stresses the need to urgently fight against the growing pollution caused by marine litter and plastics in the Mediterranean, to improve current legislation and to monitor new pollutants that require immediate regulation.
The study, requested by the Committee on Regional Development (REGI) Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies of the European Parliament, provides an exhaustive analysis of the current situation of the Mediterranean Sea, a global pollution hotspot, as well as the actions taken by the cities and regions of the Mediterranean countries of the European Union to reduce the generation and dispersion of marine pollutants. The study makes policy recommendations and points out that pollution affects both marine environment and fauna, as well as human health.
The Mediterranean is one of the world's marine areas under human pressure. Its high rates of population and urbanization (150 million inhabitants on its coasts), industrial activity, tourism (one third of the world's volume) and fishing have led to a rapid increase in pollution. It accounts for up to 30% of global shipping activity. This, combined with a geomorphological configuration in the form of a semi-enclosed basin and its specific oceanic circulation, has made the Mediterranean Sea one of the most polluted spots on the planet and a natural trap for marine litter, mainly plastics.
Between 80 and 90 per cent of marine litter in the basin is plastic, and an estimated 230,000 tonnes of land-sourced plastic leak into the sea each year. Tourism is the main sector contributing to beach litter (up to 60%) followed by fishing and aquaculture (5-10%). Only 10 types of items account for 66.4% of the beach litter in the Mediterranean Sea, 9 of them are made partly or entirely of plastic, and 7 of them of single-use plastic. Cigarette butts and cigarette filters are the most common (27.3%). Shipping activities are estimated to contribute up to 20,000 tonnes of plastic per year.
The ICTA-UAB report Actions of cities and regions in the Mediterranean Sea area to fight sea pollution indicates that the main cause of this situation is the massive waste generation and its mismanagement. Other causes include industrial and urban waste discharge, sewage, agricultural run-off, shipping, fishing, and maritime traffic, as well as tourism.
"To tackle pollution, management policies must be applied to waste reduction and treatment, tourism, pollution from plastics and other pollutants, sewage and other waste from rivers," explains Patrizia Ziveri, oceanographer at ICTA-UAB. It is necessary to target the production model, consumption patterns and waste disposal practices.
In this context, "it is essential that the fight against pollution in the Mediterranean Sea is endorsed not only by EU countries, but that regulations are implemented by all Mediterranean countries through effective cooperation", she says. The implementation and success of the actions to fight marine pollution should be monitored at different stages. Best practices should be highlighted, shared, and implemented in different suitable Mediterranean regions.
The scientists stress that significant progress has been made in terms of treatment and prevention, including the implementation of the single-use plastic directive and the promotion of recycling. However, more and continued efforts are needed. The study examines the implementation of the EU's single-use plastics directive in France, Spain, Italy, and Greece, and calls for a strategy to reduce plastics which includes market restrictions, improved waste management and agreements between consumers and producers.
"Efforts to reduce the use of plastics must continue in order to meet environmental targets. There is an urgent need to focus on the EU's strategy targets for key sectors, such as consumption patterns, production, and waste management," says Michael Grelaud, ICTA-UAB oceanographer and co-author of the report.
"Some actions to limit marine-based pollution (fisheries, aquaculture, shipping, mining) already exist, but they often face challenges in terms of effective implementation because this is often reduced to voluntary collaborations by states," says Jorge Pato, also co-author of the report.
Some of the other measures they propose in different areas are:
- Emerging pollutants. This refers to new pollutants such as pharmaceuticals, UV filters, flame retardants or pesticides that reach the sea through agricultural, urban and industrial runoff or coastal wastewater treatment plants.
- Microplastics. They point out that there are no regulations for the growing problem of microplastics. "Microplastic pollution should be established as a priority issue in the Mediterranean agenda, capable of leading to binding agreements”. They point to the establishment of bans and reduction targets in the manufacture of fabrics and cosmetics, monitoring the entry of microplastics into the sea in all water-channels, including rivers and sewage outflows. Strict regulation of ship paint and antifouling coatings is needed.
- Marine noise pollution. Shipping, oil and gas exploration, construction and maintenance of offshore structures, and military activities are a dangerous source of noise pollution affecting marine fauna, causing behavioural disturbances, communication disruption, hearing damage, stress and even death. They propose the creation of particularly sensitive sea areas where noise levels are restricted (with special attention to migratory routes, breeding grounds and biodiversity hotspots), the use of quieter ship models and the reduction of ship speeds.
- Rivers, wastewater treatment and harbours. The challenge in managing water pollution lies in the implementation of policies by the signatory countries. This is particularly evident given the varying levels of economic development among the Mediterranean nations. They are committed to the cyclical reuse of treated effluent for agriculture to reduce spending on fertilisers and the recovery of organic wastewater from urban areas as a valuable agricultural resource.
- Aquaculture. Pollutes by discharging untreated waste, using chemicals, and releasing excess nutrients. This harms aquatic life, promotes harmful algal blooms, and poisons fish and other marine species with antibiotics and heavy metals, so regulation of these excess nutrients in aquaculture is needed. EU policies for Mediterranean countries should implement the Voluntary Guidelines on the Marking of Fishing Gear to eliminate abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear and encourage the recovery of marine litter through compensation.
- Implementation of initiatives in coastal cities on waste characterization and monitoring. Examples include the use of smart waste bins that alert waste management teams when they are full; awareness-raising campaigns oriented to beach users; monitoring of debris and litter on the main commercial routes in the Mediterranean or the adaptation of packaging that is not possible to ban with alternative sustainable solutions.
- Mediterranean islands. Promote sustainable tourism; limit the generation of coastal litter by improving general awareness of the problem; limit the impact of tourism by introducing a visiting fee for litter-free coastal attractions; develop comprehensive waste management plans with the involvement of local communities; and introduce regulations to create smoke-free beaches.
Full report (English) https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2023/733123/IPOL_STU(2023)733123_EN.pdf