Plastics pollution in the Mediterranean: why a lifecycle approach can help shift the tide

Dalberg co-authored a 2019 report on plastics pollution, ‘Stop the Flood of Plastic: How Mediterranean countries can save their sea’. In addition to sharing the scope of the challenge, we detailed the root causes of the issue, highlighting the policy interventions needed across the plastics value chain.

Plastic pollution dominates the headlines, but a clear picture on how and why this problem emerges is difficult to capture. A recent WWF report co-authored with Dalberg attempts to address this challenge by both quantifying the problem and suggesting an innovative approach to country-by-country management. 

The report clarifies how much plastic is leaked in the Mediterranean Sea, through which channels, and what can be done. Every year, 570 thousand tonnes of plastic enters Mediterranean waters. This is equivalent to dumping 33,800 plastic bottles into the sea every minute. While alarming, these statistics are too broad to motivate individual actors to change.

To help governments and industries get specific about their impact, Dalberg created a lifecycle view of the challenge designed to help inform policy recommendations. By viewing plastics as a lifecycle, with many touchpoints from manufacturing to disposal, we have charted a clear, country-by-country path to reducing plastics waste. 

We started by identifying the components of the lifecycle, including production, usage, and waste management. Then, we estimated the size of the problem at each step, for each country included in the study. We used what we learned to shape recommendations aimed at helping inform policy priorities related to plastics waste reduction in the Mediterranean. 

The study’s findings highlight the fact that each step of the plastics lifecycle is an opportunity to reduce our impact. Cutting plastic consumption remains a prerequisite for reducing the region’s unbearable amount of waste. But the zero-waste model for the Mediterranean also includes minimizing plastic use in products and ensuring a fully efficient recycling and reuse system. Importantly, every country has a different set of levers to pull to shift the tide on plastics pollution.  

Taking a lifecycle approach to plastics builds the evidence base to make each country’s incentives more effective.  We took a comprehensive view in measuring the impact of plastic use and production, including energy consumption, Co2 emissions, and economic impact on fisheries, tourism, or shipping. The report also matches challenges to policy responses and develops and develops tailored recommendations for each country studied based on their leakage profile. This could serve as basis for other countries to build their approach to plastic waste. 

When it comes to reducing plastics waste, one commonality exists across all Mediterranean countries: the way incentives are currently set up along the plastic lifecycle is an obstacle to improved plastics management. While upstream actors have the greatest potential to impact plastics waste down the line, they are typically the least incentivized to do so, as they do not bear the social and economic cost of pollution.

On the other hands, downstream actors, such as small municipalities on the Mediterranean shores, have less ability to reverse the overall plastics waste trend, but currently bear most of the social and financial cost. For instance, the tourism industry around the Mediterranean loses up to €268 million from plastic pollution, mainly in cleaning costs.

To learn more about the issue and its possible solutions, you can read the detailed report, “Stop the flood of plastics: How Mediterranean countries can save their sea”.

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