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Pollution in the Mediterranean Sea is an urgent issue

The Mediterranean Sea is one of the world’s marine areas most deeply affected by a variety of human pressures. Factors such as its high rates of urbanization and population (with over 150 million inhabitants on its coasts), tourism (comprising one third of the world’s total volume), industrial activity, and fishing, along with its geomorphological configuration as a semi-enclosed basin and its specific patterns of oceanic circulation, have made the Mediterranean one of the most polluted areas on Earth and a natural trap for marine litter, particularly plastics (with an estimated 230,000 tons of land-sourced plastic leaking into the sea per year).

According to a new report conducted by the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and presented in the European Parliament, the implementation of effective policies at local and regional levels, and the cooperation of all countries in the Mediterranean basin are urgently needed to address the major environmental problems this region is currently facing. 

This report – requested by the Committee on Regional Development (REGI) Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies of the European Parliament – is a comprehensive analysis of the current situation of the Mediterranean Sea and a call for urgent collective action to reduce the generation and dispersal of marine pollutants.

The experts argue that the primary cause of this worrisome situation is the massive waste generation in this area and its mismanagement. Other factors include industrial and urban waste discharge, sewage, agricultural run-off, shipping, maritime traffic, fishing, and tourism. 

“To tackle pollution, management policies must be applied to waste reduction and treatment, tourism, pollution from plastics and other pollutants, sewage and other waste from rivers,” explained report leader Patrizia Ziveri, an oceanographer at ICTA-UAB. 

The policies aimed at combating marine pollution in the Mediterranean should address the production process, consumption habits, and methods of waste disposal. It is crucial that all Mediterranean nations work together in implementing these policies effectively. 

In addition, the progress and results of the actions taken to fight against marine pollution should be monitored closely at various stages. This will help identify the most effective strategies and enable their implementation in other regions of the Mediterranean as well.

Although significant progress has already been made in terms of treatment and prevention – such as the implementation of the single-use plastic directive and the promotion of recycling – more and continued efforts are necessary to reduce plastic pollution, including market restrictions, improved waste management, and agreements between producers and consumers.

“Efforts to reduce the use of plastics must continue in order to meet environmental targets. There is an urgent need to focus on the EU’s strategy targets for key sectors, such as consumption patterns, production, and waste management,” said report co-author Michael Grelaud, an oceanographer at ICTA-UAB. 

Oher problematic areas policy makers should focus on include:

Emerging pollutants

Besides plastics, several new pollutants such as UV filters, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, or flame retardants that reach the Mediterranean Sea through agricultural, industrial, and urban runoff or coastal wastewater treatment plants, should be closely monitored and, whenever possible, reduced.


Since no regulations for the increasing problem of microplastics currently exist, microplastic pollution should be established as a priority issue in the Mediterranean agenda, by creating bans and reduction targets in the manufacturing of fabrics and cosmetics, monitoring the entry of microplastics into the Mediterranean Sea through all water-channels, including rivers and sewage outflows, and strictly regulating the use of ship paint and antifouling coatings.

Marine noise pollution

Activities such as shipping, oil and gas exploration, construction and upkeep of offshore structures, and military exercises can lead to harmful noise pollution in marine environments. This noise pollution can cause significant damage to marine fauna, including disturbances in behavior, communication, hearing damage, stress, and even death. 

To mitigate these impacts, the experts suggest to establish particularly sensitive sea areas where noise levels are limited, with special attention given to migratory routes, breeding grounds, and areas of high biodiversity. Moreover, they recommend the use of quieter ship models and the reduction of ship speeds in these sensitive areas. 

Rivers, wastewater treatments, and harbors

Managing water pollution in the Mediterranean region is a challenge that hinges on the implementation of policies by the signatory countries, which is complicated by their varying economic development levels. However, one promising solution is to reuse treated effluent for agriculture, which not only reduces the need for expensive fertilizers but also provides a valuable resource for farmers. 

Additionally, recovering organic wastewater from urban areas can also serve as an agricultural resource, helping to combat water pollution in the region.


Untreated waste discharge, chemical usage, and excess nutrient release are among the primary causes of water pollution. These practices can lead to significant harm to aquatic life, promoting the growth of harmful algal blooms, and even poisoning fish and other marine species with antibiotics and heavy metals. Thus, there is a need to regulate the amount of excess nutrients in aquaculture. 

To help combat these issues, EU policies for Mediterranean countries should enforce the Voluntary Guidelines on the Marking of Fishing Gear to reduce abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear and incentivize the recovery of marine litter through compensation.

Implementation of initiatives in coastal cities on waste characterization and monitoring

Some of these initiatives could include the use of smart bins which alert waste management teams when they are full, the establishing of awareness-raising campaigns targeting beach users, the monitoring of debris and litter on the major commercial routes in the Mediterranean Sea, and the creation of more sustainable types of packaging. 

Regulation of tourist activities

Policy makers should promote sustainable tourism, limit the generation of coastal litter by increasing tourists’ awareness of this problem, introduce visiting fees for litter-free coastal attractions, develop comprehensive waste management plans by collaborating with local communities, and enforce regulations to create smoke-free beaches.

The full report can be downloaded here.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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