Marine litter management in the Mediterranean: The Maltese case

A case history from our partner Wasteserv Malta

The Mediterranean Sea is an enclosed sea with only one opening for water exchange and occupies some 2.5 million km2. The north western shores of the sea are heavily populated and highly urbanised. The southern coast is sparsely populated but population is ever increasing. Coastal tourism is very important accounting to about one third of global tourism. Maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea is amongst the world’s busiest. The physical and demographic conditions of the Mediterranean Sea make it a trap for marine- and land-derived litter. Urbanisation and increased industrial activity are the major contributors of marine litter in the Mediterranean Sea. The impacts of marine litter in the Mediterranean Sea are substantial when considering its enclosed nature, endangered flora and fauna and the importance of the tourism industry in the area which doubles during the summer period.

The Maltese Islands are situated at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. The Maltese territorial waters extend to 9.65km from the coast, comprehending an area of about 3,000 km2. Limited investigations were so far carried out on benthic (sea bottom) marine litter in the Maltese Islands. The beach surveys which are being carried out as part of the BLUEISLANDS project are expected to provide a better picture of the marine litter situation in the Maltese islands. This will also provide an insight on the impacts of tourism on the local scenario.

As part of its corporate social responsibility, Wasteserv recently coordinated two beach clean-ups.  The areas leading to these beaches were also incorporated in these clean-ups. Common waste streams noted during these clean-ups were glass, wood, metals and plastics.

After recovering marine litter, treatment becomes the next issue. Recycling of marine litter might not be technically and economically viable due to various reasons.  For instance plastics need to be meticulously sorted into same plastic types for recycling to be possible. This is hard to achieve since plastics found in marine litter would be difficult to identify, and also because not all plastics are recyclable. Plastic needs to be cleaned from foreign objects such as sand, dirt and marine organisms to be prepared for recycling. Moreover, decomposition from marine exposure and ultraviolet radiation may degrade the quality of the plastics making it unsuitable for recycling. Thermal treatment of plastic marine litter might not be possible due to the high moisture and salt content which might damage the furnace. Also, some plastics may emit harmful chemical substances when incinerated and the further treatment of ash would be necessary. Currently the waste collected from marine clean-ups is either exported or landfilled as other treatment in Malta is limited.

This information was presented during an Environmental attaché meeting as part of Malta’s EU presidency on the 27th April 2017 in Valletta. Around 100 EU delegates were informed on Maltese Marine litter issues and the Blue Islands project. From the feedback received the delegates were highly interested in this matter.

‘Marine litter from circalittoral and deeper bottoms off the Maltese Islands (Central Mediterranean)’, Mifsud, Dimech, Schembri, Mediterranean Marine Science, 2013
‘Recycling Plastic Marine Litter’, Northwest Pacific Action Plan, UNEP Regional Seas, October 2007