Turning the Tide on Plastics in the Mediterranean
September 11, 2017
by Courtney Mattison
At first glance, the cove of Cala Figuera in Mallorca’s Bay of Palma looks like a Mediterranean paradise, with sun-kissed boulders tumbling into glittering turquoise water. Take a closer look at its beach, however, and you will discover that instead of sand, it is comprised of heaps of plastic. Snarls of Posidonia seagrass tangle with plastic straws, fishing line, drink cups and syringes. Thousands of tiny plastic sticks from cotton swabs and lollipops are strewn like confetti across the beach. Dig into the top layer of sun-bleached plastic rubble and you will discover a rainbow of bottle caps, toys, tile spacers, cigarette butts and microplastics at least a meter thick.
“We’ve actually come on a good day and the sea is relatively clean,” said Brad Robertson, Founder and President of Asociación Ondine, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization based in Mallorca, Spain. “But you can see along [the beach] that there’s a whole array of… [plastic] pieces.”
Robertson brought the Mission Blue Expedition Team to Cala Figuera in early July as part of Mission Blue’s recent expedition to the Balearic Islands Hope Spot—the first Hope Spot in the Mediterranean. Aboard the Bonnie Lass, Mission Blue and Asociación Ondine joined representatives from local stakeholder groups as well as two plastic pollution artist-advocates—Pam Longobardi and Dianna Cohen.
“I pick up everything I can,” says Longobardi, “I think every single piece you can pick up is that one last piece. That one is not going to hurt something, you know?” Longobardi, a Distinguished University Professor of Art at Georgia State University and Founder of the Drifters Project, incorporates objects she finds during beach cleanups into her art installations. She found layers of significance in the plastic beach we encountered:
You’re looking at a crime against nature here. So I want to bring these things back and show people and see what messages they might bring. Like, what can we learn from this stuff? Who’s living on it? Who bit it? Where’d it come from? What text can be read on it? Is there a message in the irony of it?
According to Brad Robertson, prevailing currents carry plastic debris into coves and small bays like Cala Figuera, which acts as a catchment point. Much of the plastic comes from local sources like streets, beaches and sewage treatment plants that lack filters fine enough to catch small bits of plastic like cotton swab sticks. Other sources of plastic are farther away, like the northern coast of Africa.
In the water, plastic pollution looks to many sea creatures like a source of food. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish—their prey—and fill their stomachs with them, sometimes to the point of starvation. Fish, invertebrates and seabirds mistake microplastics for fish eggs and suffer similar consequences. Plastic bioaccumulates in the body tissues of predatory fish like the Mediterranean’s endangered bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), and consequently in the humans who eat them.
Despite its harmful impacts, plastic pollution may offer a cause for hope. With its colorful snarls of recognizable objects from our daily lives, plastic pollution is a visibly compelling threat that can inspire public action where more abstract issues like overfishing and climate change often fall short. It can even serve as a “gateway cause” to engage the public and policymakers in broader ocean conservation measures. Bringing the issue of plastic pollution to the surface through art and other creative forms of communication can make people relate and inspire them to do their part to limit their impacts.
Strongly protected marine protected areas (MPAs), which regulate human impacts in designated zones, are known to help alleviate the effects of threats like climate change and overfishing and may help safeguard Hope Spots such as the Balearic Islands for the future. As plastic pollution is such a strong potential gateway to spark interest in marine conservation, management plans for MPAs in the Mediterranean (and beyond) should include it as a threat to address. Just as MPAs regulate fishing and oil drilling, they can help control the release of plastic into the environment. The Balearic Islands would greatly benefit from stronger enforcement and expansion of its MPAs in addition to the inclusion of plastic pollution as a priority issue.
While “turning off the tap” of single-use and disposable plastic production is arguably the most important step in solving the plastic pollution crisis, individual actions make a big difference, says Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. She and Pam Longobardi envisioned the concept of Plastic Free Islands as a model to unite stakeholders “to reduce and eliminate single-use plastic such as straws, bottles, and bags on islands across the globe.” In 2014 they developed the model in Kefalonia, Greece and have since implemented it in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Belize and Indonesia.
Empowering people—especially kids—to refuse single-use and disposable plastic can influence not only their friends and family but also the buying habits of restaurants. Cohen says, “I think that little kids, especially when they’re right at that age around two or three where they like to say ‘no’ to everything, it’s really cool to teach them that it’s okay to say ‘no plastic straw.”
“Every single day, we make hundreds of decisions either towards or away from plastic,” adds Longobardi. “It’s just an incremental shift. But little by little, one by one… these choices add up.”
Special thanks go to French luxury skincare brand, Biotherm, for sponsoring the Mission Blue Balearic Islands Hope Spot Expedition. Thanks also to Asociación Ondine and Bonnie Lass Charters in Mallorca for keeping our team safe and informed on the water, and to Pam Longobardi and Dianna Cohen for sharing their important work.