Plastic pollution in the Mediterranean Sea

The alarming state of the popular tourist destination

The extent of global pollution

The world’s oceans are without a doubt polluted: chemical waste, radioactive waste, nuclear weapons tests, oil and plastics. Lots of plastic. 300 million tons of it are produced annually worldwide, but not even 20% is recycled. At least 30% leaves the process of production and consumption uncontrolled. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste was calculated swimming in the world’s oceans in 2010 (Laura Parker).

Waste reaches the sea mainly through rivers, but also through air, shipping and fishing. In almost enclosed marginal seas such as the Mediterranean, increasing pollution poses some particular problems because of limited water exchange with the open sea (Stefan Rahmstorf; Katherine Richardson). Moreover, the Mediterranean is particularly vulnerable to plastic pollution due to a large area of industrialised coastline. This article looks at how plastic is polluting the seas, the Mediterranean Sea in particular, and what consequences this has for people and nature:

What types of plastic reach the Mediterranean Sea?

The plastic that reaches the sea comes in all shapes and sizes. Large plastic parts pose a direct danger to animals such as birds, turtles, whales and fish because these can get entangled in them and kill them agonizingly.

Microplasty is a particular problem. Microplastics are solid and insoluble plastic particles that measure under a millimeter, down to sizes in the micrometer range. It is processed in toothpaste, skin creams, peelings, shower gels and shampoos and is released into the environment uncontrolled via our waste water. Rivers transport it into the sea, where it encounters another type of microplastic produced from the decomposition of larger plastic waste.

How plastic pollutes the water

For the Mediterranean, it is estimated that two plankton organisms have one microplastic particle, or 300,000 particles per square kilometer. These particles enter our food chain via tiny organisms such as zooplankton eaten by fish. Plankton has been contaminated with microplastics since the 1960s and comparative studies have shown that the content of microplastics in plankton is rising dramatically (Wiebke Rögener).

To get a bit sciency, the microplastic itself can have carcinogenic, toxic or endocrine disrupting components. In addition, environmental toxins such as hydrocarbons, DDT or carcinogenic organic chlorine compounds (PCBs) accumulate on its surface. According to a 2015/16 study, microplastics contain three to four times as many toxins as the seabed in the immediate vicinity (Wikipedia).

Microplasty has been found in seals, fish, mussels and smaller organisms that take it passively or with their food. These pollutants can be released in the digestive tract and harm them (BUND).

Looking at the future

One third of the world's maritime trade passes through the Mediterranean, with an expected increase of 4% by 2025. It is also the world's number one tourist destination, with 343 million visitors a year (2014) and an expected increase of 40% by 2025. Around 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually worldwide, with an upward trend. Although more and more cosmetic producers are dispensing with the use of microplastics, they are by no means the only or largest source of pollution.


BUND. Mikroplastik – kleine Gifttransporter aus dem Abflussrohr (Accessed on 23. März 2017)

Parker, Laura 2015. „Eight Million Tons of Plastic Dumped in Ocean Every Year“, in from 13 February, 2015. (Accessed on 23 March, 2017)

Rahmstorf, Stefan; Richardson, Katherine 2007. Wie bedroht sind die Ozeane? Biologische und physikalische Aspekte. Vol. 2. Forum für Verantwortung 17277. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verl.

Rögener, Wiebke 2010. „Plastik im Plankton“, in from 17 May, 2010. (Accessed on 23 March, 2017)

Wikipedia. „Microplastics“.

If you are interested in this topic, join our trip to Marseille, where we will meet with an NGO to exchange ideas on plastic pollution in the Mediterranean, actions and operations.