Every summer the holidaymakers hitting the beaches of the Mediterranean bring with them a massive wave of marine litter.
Among the worst offenders for plastic pollution were Turkey, Spain, Italy, Egypt and France – countries more than 34 million British people are set to visit this year.
The plastic waste is threatening the region’s wildlife, with reports of whales dying after consuming plastic bags and tuna found with stomachs full of cellophane.
Though the Mediterranean has received less attention than the infamous “garbage patches” that form in major oceans, it has been described by scientists as one of the regions most threatened by marine litter.
“Levels of microplastics found in the Mediterranean were nearly four times higher than found in the North Pacific ‘plastic island’,” Lyndsey Dodds, head of marine policy at WWF, told The Independent.
While the Mediterranean holds only 1 per cent of the world’s water, it contains 7 per cent of all of the world’s microplastic waste.
“Many factors make this the case,” explained Dr David Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey, whose research contributed to the WWF report.
“The Mediterranean is a region of high multiple anthropogenic stresses so plastic interacts and compounds these to make life there especially vulnerable.”
Besides being fed by densely populated and highly industrialised waterways, the Mediterranean acts as a trap for plastics from further afield.
Plastics accumulate in the semi-enclosed sea in huge quantities, where they break down into smaller and smaller fragments over long periods of time.
“Increasingly degradation and sinking of plastics mean that what was once a sea surface and beach strand issue has become much bigger and less visible by accumulating on the seabed, into more remote locations and into the foodweb,” Dr Barnes told The Independent.
Microplastics – tiny fragments that can come from cosmetics, clothing or the degradation of larger plastics – have become a ubiquitous menace, with samples of sea ice from both poles revealing traces of them.
“I think it’s fair to say that the more we look for microplastics the more we find them – and see this is a problem everywhere,” said Ms Dodds.
Though scientists are not clear about the impact of microplastics, there is concern that they will accumulate in the food chain and result in health issues for animals and potentially humans.
This appears to be playing out in the fin whales of the Pelagos Sanctuary in the northwestern Mediterranean.
The tissue of these giant mammals has levels of phthalates – potentially harmful chemicals that result from the breakdown of plastics – that are five times higher than whales sampled from less contaminated regions.
Besides the 130,000 tons of microplastics thought to end up in the sea from Europe every year, the report – released to mark World Oceans Day – found that the region dumps as much as 500,000 tons of larger plastics.
This volume, which is the equivalent of 66,000 full rubbish trucks, poses a major threat to marine creatures, which can become entangled in plastic debris or consume it after mistaking it for food.
According to the report, Europe has become one of the largest plastic producers in the world – second only to China.
“The Mediterranean is a beautiful holiday destination enjoyed by millions of British people each summer but when we come home with our happy memories, we’re leaving behind a toxic legacy of plastic waste,” said Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF.
“The birds, fish, and turtles of the Mediterranean are choking on plastic, but our report also shows plastic is ending up in the fish and seafood we eat on holiday.
“That’s why we’re asking people to think about how they can cut down on the amount of single-use plastic they use and throw away on holiday.”
Besides asking individuals to be mindful of their plastic consumption on holiday, the environmental organisation is urging Mediterranean governments to take immediate action on plastics.
“Each of the countries need to bring in their own targets to try and achieve 100 per cent of waste being recycled or reusable by 2030 under the EU targets – and also to consider bans on particular items,” said Ms Dodds.
“In the UK specifically we are asking for a ban on particular items where alternatives are readily available – things like straws, stirrers, cutlery, as well as taxes on a range of other products.”
However, the Mediterranean is more than just Europe, and Dr Barnes noted that poverty and governance issues mean many of the region’s bordering countries may not consider the issue of plastic pollution to be significant.
WWF has also emphasised the importance of greater responsibility falling on producers and retailers, so they are obliged to oversee the full life cycle of all their plastics.
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