A briefing delivered at a gathering of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Polar Regions Plastic last month offered the stark warning that no less than 330 million tonnes of plastic was estimated to have been produced globally in 2017. By far the largest proportion of this total are the decidedly non-environmentally friendly single-use plastics – items such as cutlery, food wrappers or drinking straws.
Plastic is a material that is hard to break down, therefore disposal and recycling techniques are never 100 per cent effective. Furthermore, waste management can be a tricky affair for many nations and litter is often discarded into the marine environment. Greenpeace estimates that globally, plastic constitutes 60 to 80 per cent of all marine litter.
Greenpeace adds that Europe accounts for 18.5 per cent of total global plastic production. Just after China, (at 27.8 per cent), it is the second largest plastic producer in the world. The campaigning NGO’s figures report that Europe disposes in the region of 500,000 tonnes of macroplastic (plastic items that exceed 25mm in diameter or length) into the sea each year. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the Mediterranean contains one of the most polluted aquatic environments on the planet.
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The Mediterranean Sea is a semi-enclosed and relatively small-sized basin which limits the flow of water exchange with the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently, it is easy for waste to accumulate in the area. The region is famous for its idyllic scenery and sunny weather conditions and as a result attracts a significant amount of tourists over the summer months, almost 25 per cent of the annual tourist trade in 2017. This has a significant impact on the local environment. Recent reports from the WWF estimate that tourism in the region causes an extra 40 per cent of waste to enter the Mediterranean Sea each year, with plastic believed to account for 95 per cent of that pollution. The Mediterranean basin might only comprises a mere one per cent of the world’s waters, but research shows that no less than seven per cent of the world’s microplastic waste (plastic items smaller than 5mm in diameter or length) has accumulated in the area. By way of comparison, the WWF has calculated that were all those microplastics to be grouped together, they would form an island four times the size of the famous ‘plastic island’ of the North Pacific Ocean.
Tourism is increasingly damaging the Mediterranean ecosystem and the 200 million tourists travelling annually to Turkey, France, Egypt, Italy and Spain are being held most responsible. Plastic causes a serious threat to the survival of the 25,000 different species of plants and animals that live in the area, 60 per cent of which are unique to the region. Research published by the Royal Society last December shows that fish are prone to mistaking plastic debris for prey and thus ingest potentially deadly components.
Plastic waste caused by tourism might also have impacts on human health, given that the majority of sea creatures swallowing microplastics inevitably find their way onto our plates. Microplastics are entering the food chain and, on average, someone eating fish in the EU is ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic per year, according to the WWF.
Consequently, reducing oceanic water pollution has become a growing, vital issue. At a meeting on 6 December 2017 in Nairobi, the United Nations Environment Assembly declared that ‘by 2025 [all countries need to] prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.’ On World Ocean Day (8 June 2018), the WWF issued a statement targeting European governments, inhabitants and businesses. The aim is to get single-use plastic items banned by 2025 and urge tourists to reduce plastic waste during summer holidays by providing guidelines on how they can minimise their impact on the environment while abroad. Suggestions include using washable cloths instead of face wipes, and exploring local food markets to sample fresh products that have not been wrapped up in unnecessary plastic materials.
On a larger scale, the plastics industry itself is starting to play a larger role in the reduction of litter by investing in research to design alternative packaging materials and by engaging in initiatives to reduce unnecessary and damaging activities. In 2011 for example, the company PlasticsEurope joined Vacances Propres, a French non-profit organisation, as an official sponsor (other members of the association include Coca-Cola, Evian and Perrier). Vacances Propres is a local French project that provides towns receiving large numbers of tourists in the south of France with bags and bins for trash collection. It also organises campaigns that educate consumers about sustainable waste disposal methods. Since 2007, 20,000 bins have been distributed while 50,000 tons of waste were collected in 2012.
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