Renewable Matter # 1 / Next Europe

Plastic Mediterranean Sea

by Stefano Ciafani

After monitoring the floating waste for 87 hours and observing 1,700 km of sea by Legambiente’s Green Schooner (Goletta Verde) and by the Accademia del Leviatano in the summer of 2014, the picture of the marine litter besetting the Italian coastline gained new important data. In the Italian seas, up to 27 floating waste items have been spotted per square kilometre (sq.km), 90% of which were plastic. Along Goletta Verde’s course, the observation team spotted a waste item every 10 minutes.

There are significant differences amongst the various seas surrounding Italy. The Adriatic Sea has been identified as the most polluted, with 27 floating items of waste per sq. km of sea, mainly plastic bags (totalling 41%) and plastic fragments (22%). This area stands out for the quantity of plastic waste due to fishing (20% of the total) registered after monitoring Italian seas.

The Tyrrhenian Sea boasts a superficial density of 26 items of waste per km2 and the highest percentage of plastic waste (91%). Noteworthy is that 34% of floating waste is made up of bottles (refreshments and detergents) exceeding plastic bags (29%). The Ionian Sea seems healthier, with “only” 7 items of waste per km2.

4 items of waste have been found in the across-the-border leg between Civitavecchia and Barcelona, monitored by Accademia del Leviatano, although only wastes over 20 cm have been taken into consideration and in deep sea. In other routes Goletta Verde monitored wastes from 2.5 cm up (75% of the total is made up of wastes under 20 cm).

The sea areas most affected by marine litter are: Castellammare di Stabia’s coastline (with 150 wastes per km2), Abruzzo’s coastline facing Giulianova (with over 100 wastes per km2) and the sea washing the Gargano area between Manfredonia and Termoli (over 30).

The observation was carried out according to the scientific protocol developed by the Department for the Protection of nature – Ispra – and by the Department of Biology of the Pisa University, using the waste grading Ospar/Tsg-Ml. 

Even though far from the levels of the plastic vortex in the Pacific Ocean, plastic poses a serious environmental problem for all the seas of the planet. According to Fao’s General Fishery Council for the Mediterranean, over 6 million tons of human dangerous and solid materials are discharged into the sea every year. It goes without saying that the repercussions on the environment, the economy and the marine fauna are undeniable. Suffice it to think that the ingestion of waste is one of the main death causes amongst sea turtles. Not to mention the impact of microplastics (the smaller fragments generated through degradation of larger materials) that, if swallowed directly or involuntarily by marine fauna, enter the food chain.

The huge quantity of spotted waste gives us a clear picture of what the sea bottom hides, since the floating waste is only the tip of the iceberg of a bigger problem. It is estimated that 70% of waste entering the marine ecosystem sinks. Due to the current laws and the absence of collection and disposal networks in the harbours, fishermen are thus encouraged to throw into the sea waste accidentally trapped in their nets.

Tackling the issue of sea waste is one of the European priorities of the Marine Strategy, the 2008/56 directive devoted to the sea environment aiming at the achievement of a good ecological state for the water of each member state by 2020, based on 11 descriptors, one of which regarding waste.

Over the last 30 years, the world’s plastic production has soared exponentially and such non-biodegradable products have contributed enormously to environmental and sea pollution. In the last few years, Italy, thanks to the ban on non-compostable plastic bags has created a unique discontinuity amongst industrialized countries, promoting innovative industrial policies of green chemistry and changing the lifestyle of Italians who used such products excessively (in the last 3 years, in Italy, the use of disposable plastic bags has halved). It is high time Europe finally adopted the directive bill that has already been largely discussed and voted on at first reading by the previous European Parliament in order to extend Italy’s best practice to the rest of the Old Continent which is also called upon to solve the problem of plastic pollution in the Mediterranean Sea. It is no coincidence that plastic bags spotted during last summer by Legambiente and Accademia del Leviatano’s monitoring in the Tyrrhenian Sea (29% of the total) were by far less than those found in the Adriatic (41%), a sea which is also polluted by the Balkan countries where the plastic bags ban does not exist.

 

The navigation map of the waste investigation in the Italian seas conducted by Green Schooner (Goletta Verde) in summer 2014 is available on www.legambiente.it/marinelitter.