Microplastics in the Mediterranean

Raising awareness & quantifying their presence on beaches in the Camargue, France

Subject: Mediterranean microplastic pollution
Location: The Camargue
Leader: Robert Sluka

While marine litter has been a topic of awareness and campaigns for some time, microplastics have only recently come to the forefront of our attention. These small particles and fragments – typically defined as being less than 5mm in size – can be divided into two classes: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are those manufactured at a ‘micro’ size: the small plastic pellets or ‘nurdles’ that act as the base material for plastic production and beads added to water to help scrub industrial machines are two examples, but closer to home include the microbeads found in many cosmetic products (face scrubs, etc.) and even toothpastes! Not all of these are removed by wastewater treatment processes (some estimates suggest that as many as half of the micro-beads contained in cosmetic products would pass straight through the wastewater treatment system!) and so are released into waterways and oceans.

Secondary microplastics, meanwhile, arise from the breakdown of larger plastic waste: carrier bags, product packaging, fishing equipment, fibres from clothes washed out by the washing machine, etc. These microplastics, which end up in the ocean, are at the mercy of tides and currents, and accumulate into huge zones, or ‘gyres’, of floating plastics.

 

Plastic Ocean

Large volumes of plastic waste can be found on beaches and out at sea. Research suggests that levels in the Mediterranean are six times higher than average (Barnes & Milner 2005).
(Photo credit: CC BY 2.0/ Krejci/ Plastic Ocean/URI:)

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The presence of microplastic particles in the marine environment has a number of implications. Like larger plastic items, they provide a surface that marine biota can colonize. The effect, however, is much greater, as the smaller size provides a much larger surface relative to volume. Amongst the species found on microplastics are some that cause illness in humans and marine animals. Meanwhile, plastic particles can act as a raft, carrying their inhabitants long distances across the world in ocean currents and introducing them to ecosystems in which they could have a negative effect. Separately, the small size of microplastic particles makes them easily ingested by marine organisms. The smallest particles may even enter the animal across their gills. Fish can mistake them for prey, while filter feeders like mussels and whales filter them from the water alongside particles of food. In this way they can also enter the diet of birds and people, who eat the animals who have eaten/absorbed the plastics. Plastics often contain chemicals to give specific properties, which in many cases are toxic, as well as binding to pollutants already in the water. These can be released inside the animal, causing problems additional to the obvious physical risks of blocked tubes and other internal damage.

Mussels for dinner?

Mussels and other shellfish have been found to accumulate microplastic particles from the water. There might be more in that plate of mussels than you bargained for…

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The UN has set the goal (part of Sustainability Development Goal 14) to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution, including marine debris, by 2025. At A Rocha, we are contributing to the microplastic research effort and to environmental education efforts: what is the problem, what is its cause, and what can we all do to help?

We have developed a protocol to sample microplastics on sandy beaches, and are currently using it to characterise microplastic pollution in the Camargue, a nature reserve at the mouth of the Rhone (France). Working with a oceanographic lab, we are analysing the samples to see which types of microplastics occur most often and how they compare to those found out at sea.

This data can help to target campaigns and advocacy efforts to the main sources, and will complement existing work in the Mediterranean. The studies also allow participation from beach users and organised groups, who can take part in collecting the samples and learn how they can help reduce the presence of microplastics in the marine environment.

Through this work, we will better understand the sources of microplastic pollution in the Mediterranean and how the microplastics degrade over time. This will in turn enable more effective solutions to be identified for reducing the addition of microplastics to the Mediterranean Ocean.

Care for creation

Marine animals cannot digest plastic. Plastic items often remain in the stomach for life, or worse, pass into the intestines where they can cause blockages. It’s hard to imagine how this albatross would have ever managed to eat a proper meal with its stomach full of all this! (Photo credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Do you want to help?

Join our field researchers to collect samples and help process them in the comfort of A Rocha’s Les Tourades Field Study Centre in Provence – find out more volunteering details

Download our free fact sheet for more information on microplastics

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Microplastics fact sheet

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