by Giulia Chiuso
MONACO. Turquoise seas. Emerald forests. Crystal waters. Landscapes and seascapes we all love. The jewels of the Mediterranean have dazzled since the dawn of civilization. And its natural riches continue to sustain and delight millions of people today.
Unfortunately for this jewel of our planet, today plastic represents 95 per cent of the waste floating in the Mediterranean seas and lying on its beaches. Most of this plastic is released into the sea from Turkey and Spain, followed by Italy, Egypt and France, with tourists visiting the region increasing marine litter by 40 per cent each summer. Large plastic pieces injure, suffocate and often kill marine animals, including protected and endangered species, such as sea turtles and monk seals.
But it is microplastics – smaller and more insidious fragments – that have reached record levels of concentration of 1.25 million fragments per km2 in the Mediterranean Sea, almost four times higher than in the “plastic island” found in the North Pacific Ocean. By entering the food chain, these fragments threaten an increasing number of animal species as well as people. “In Europe, we produce an enormous amount of plastic waste, the majority of which is sent to landfills, resulting in millions of tonnes of plastic entering the Mediterranean Sea each year. This contaminating flow, combined with the Mediterranean being semi-enclosed, has seen harmful microplastics reach record concentration levels, threatening both marine species and human health,” said Giuseppe Di Carlo, Director, WWF’s Mediterranean Marine Initiative. “We cannot let the Mediterranean drown in plastic. We need to act urgently and across the whole supply chain to save our ocean from the pervasive presence of plastics.”
The most recent data and scientific evidence on plastic use in Europe and the many ways in which it impacts marine life present a detailed roadmap of the urgent actions institutions, businesses and citizens need to take to stop plastic waste from reaching the sea. Delays and gaps in plastic waste management in most Mediterranean countries are among the root causes of plastic pollution. Out of the 27 million tonnes of plastic waste produced each year in Europe , only a third is recycled; half of all plastic waste in Italy, France and Spain ends up in landfills. Recycled plastics currently account for only 6 per cent of plastics demand in Europe. “Recycling is supposed to be part of the solution, this legislation will help prevent it from being a source of pollution,” said Martin Bourque, Executive Director, Ecology Center. “False claims by the plastic industry about plastic recycling resulted in a complete disaster for communities and ecosystems around the globe. This legislation raises the bar for plastic recycling which is good for people and the planet, and will help restore consumer confidence that recycling is still the right thing to do.”
Plastic is not inherently bad; it is a man-made invention that has generated significant benefits for society, and even in some cases, the environment. Unfortunately, the way industry and governments have managed plastics and the way society has converted it into a disposable and single-use commodity transformed this innovation into a planetary disaster. To developing Mediterranean no longer a plastic dumping ground many efforts to curb the plastic litter crisis are taking aim at single-use plastics, with the goal of encouraging more durable, reusable items. Single-use is most often associated with the plastic pollution crisis. Some 40 percent of all plastic produced is used for packaging, much of it used only once and thrown away. The term means “made to be used once only” and refers to “items whose unchecked proliferation are blamed for damaging the environment and affecting the food chain.”
The serious thing is that the existing legal framework covering marine plastic pollution is fragmented and ineffective, and does not provide the tools necessary for an effective global response to the problem. It requires coordinated international action, shared responsibility and a common approach. This issue cannot be solved on a national or regional level, or through non-binding, voluntary measures alone, as it happens for instance in the Principality of Monaco, which is putting key ocean issues in the spotlight. Throughout the Monaco Ocean Week, deeply sustained by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the Monaco Blue Initiative objective is the development of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by increasing their effectiveness and extent. These sanctuaries appear to be one of the most appropriate solutions for protecting marine ecosystems from human activities. Still too few in number since they only represent 7.44% of the surface of the world’s oceans, MPAs must be multiplied and better managed in order to protect marine. biodiversity.
Unfortunately, in fact there is a strong microplastics alert in the Pelagos Sanctuary, a marine area of 87,500 sq. km subject to an agreement between Italy, Monaco and France for the protection of marine mammals, which live in it. Designated for the protection of marine mammals, the Pelagos Sanctuary in the north western Mediterranean is the region’s largest marine protected area. It also has one of the highest concentrations of microplastics (comparable to those found in subtropical gyres) and that’s a big problem for cetaceans, which can accumulate large quantities of contaminants. Plankton is highly contaminated in the Pelagos Sanctuary. Concentrations of phthalates found in the tissues of fin whales were up to 4-5 times higher than those of whales from less contaminated areas. Long-finned pilot whales and sperm whales, predators at the top of the marine food chain, are more contaminated than those found in the Atlantic, confirming the high levels of contamination in the Mediterranean Sea. In general, female cetaceans are less contaminated than males – but only because they transfer their contaminants to the baby during breastfeeding. Due to the impact and increased awareness of the effects of plastics on the world’s oceans, environment and on our health, many organisations have gathered strength, unified by the same vision: a future that is free from plastic pollution. Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) is one of the biggest global movements envisioning a future free from plastic pollution.
Since its launch in 2016, nearly 1,500 organizations across the world have joined to demand massive reductions in single-use plastics and to push for lasting solutions to the plastic pollution crisis. Thanks to the influence and hard work of this movement, several countries have already taken important steps to cut down on single-use plastics. In Europe, tackling plastic pollution has been a key priority on the EU agenda. In January 2018, the European Commission launched its Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, and in December 2018 the EU agreed on pioneering new laws to reduce the environmental impact of certain plastic products, the so-called Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive. The EU had already hoped to conclude the legislative process in the spring of 2019 and for member states to incorporate the measures into national laws by 2021. The SUPs to be banned by this date include items for which alternatives exist on the market – disposable cutlery and plates, straws, cotton bud sticks, balloon sticks and EPS containers for food and drinks as well as fishing gear and oxo-degradable plastics. Among the most active world bodies, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal entered into force on 5 May 1992. As of May 2019, thirty years after 22 March 1989, when the Basel was opened for signature, 187 countries took a major step forward in curbing the plastic waste crisis by adding plastic to the Basel Convention, the amendments require exporters to obtain the consent of receiving countries before shipping most contaminated, mixed, or un recyclable plastic waste, providing an important tool for countries in the Global South to stop the dumping of unwanted plastic waste into their country.
After China banned imports of most plastic waste in 2018, developing countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, have received a huge influx of contaminated and mixed plastic wastes that are difficult or even impossible to recycle. Norway’s proposed amendments to the Basel Convention provides countries the right to refuse unwanted or unmanageable plastic waste. The decision reflects a growing recognition around the world of the toxic impacts of plastic and the plastic waste trade. The majority of countries expressed their support for the proposal and over one million people globally signed two public petitions from Avaavz and SumOfUS. Yet even amidst this overwhelming support, the United States is the largest exporter of plastic waste in the world. As the United States is not a party to the Basel Convention, it will be banned from trading plastic waste with developing countries that are Basel Parties but not part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Anyway, the Basel amendments are a critical pillar of an emerging global architecture to address plastic pollution. “Several key Basel Convention decisions demonstrate that countries are finally catching up with the urgency and magnitude of the plastic pollution issue and shows what ambitious international leadership looks like,” said David Azoulay, Environmental Health Director, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) “Plastic pollution in general and plastic waste in particular remain a major threat to people and the planet, but we are encouraged by the decision of the Basel Convention as we look to the future bold decisions that will be needed to tackle plastic pollution at its roots, starting with reducing production.” .Other international bodies must now do their part, including ambitious measures under the IMO and ultimately a new legally binding UN treaty. The EU was a vocal and active supporter of the Basel amendments, proposing to increase ambition so that only the cleanest of clean plastic waste would not be subject to notification. The EU is not only leading by example but taking its Plastics Strategy to the international level.”
Another key body is supportted by the LIFE Programme of the European Union is the ZERO WASTE EUROPE Organisation, informal until December 2013 when it was formally registered as a foundation in the Netherlands. 2014 marked the first year of official operations. This leap forwards was the result of many years spent building the foundations of the movement, with the support of members from the network, the contributions of first donors and Board as well as everyone who has supported the zero waste community in Europe. ZERO WASTE are now registered on the Transparency Register. ZWE is an European independent initiative bringing together organisations and municipalities committed to work to eliminate waste in Europe. ZWE is participating in the international organisation Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA). All that said, the way we use and dispose of plastics must change for the sake of not just the environment – but also our economy.