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Marine Litter: A Global Problem for Marine Sustainability and İzmir

Dr. Saygın Can OĞUZ
Blue Growth Policies Unit


Throughout history, people have regarded rivers and seas as places that can absorb our unwanted substances unlimitedly. With this point of view, more materials get through to seas via different ways as a result of human activity, either directly or indirectly.  Increasing world population, more industrialized society and diversified coastal and marine socioeconomic activities, took the problem day by day to a higher scale. Today, marine litter is a multidimensional issue that has significant effects on economies as well as on ecology[i]. The economic impacts range from costs of battling or cleaning-up marine litter for governments, to decreasing earnings from maritime activities such as shipping, fishing or coastal tourism.

Although marine litter is considered as a more recent issue, the history of related studies in the literature goes nearly 50 years back. According to GESAMP (2015), first reports on floating plastic micro-debris in the North Atlantic were published in the early 1970s. National and international concern started to increase in the mid-1980s to marine litter problem and in 1990s it is defined by some international organizations as one of the leading topics regarding marine environments. More recently, at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012, marine litter was raised as an issue of concern. According to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2013) marine litter reduction at global level was the only new target agreed at the Rio+20 summit.

UNEP defines marine litter as “any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment, regardless of its size” and identifies marine litter as a complex, multi-dimensional and multi-sectoral problem, with significant implications for the marine and coastal environment at the global level (UNEP, 2013). Marine litter directly affects marine and coastal life, natural ecosystems and potentially human health. The litter arise mainly from land-based sources, maritime activities and sea-based infrastructures. Because it can be transported over long distances, symptoms of marine litter can be observed even in uninhabited islands (PB and UN-SDSN Med, 2017).

The world produces a huge amount of plastics, nearly 300 million tons each year. About two percent of it—around eight million metric tons—ends up in the ocean (HBS, 2017). Plastic wastes compose more than 80 percent of marine litter in average. Larger pieces degrade and fragment by time in the sea and this results increasing microplastics (fragments less than 5 mm size), which interacts with marine organisms. Today, information on amounts, sources and impacts of marine litter is still not complete (PB and UN-SDSN Med, 2017; GESAMP, 2015). The following part highlights some points regarding the Mediterranean Region, in which İzmir is located.

Marine Litter in the Mediterranean

Mediterranean is almost totally land-locked and has very limited exchanges with the Atlantic. This characteristic, associated with densely populated coastlines, strong coastal tourism, maritime traffic load of up to 30 percent of maritime transport, inputs from dense urban areas and large rivers, makes the Mediterranean Sea as one of the mostly affected areas by marine litter in the world (PB and UN-SDSN Med, 2017; UNEP/MAP, 2015).

According to WWF (2019), three Mediterranean countries account for two-thirds of plastic leaked into nature and Egypt (42.5 %), Turkey (18.9 %), and Italy (7.5 %) are biggest contributors. Izmir, with 7,2 kg/km daily plastic accumulation on coastline, considered as one of the hotspots of plastic pollution in the Mediterranean (Figure 1). Calculations propose that, the Mediterranean’s Blue Economy loses an estimated €641 million to marine plastic pollution each year, mostly sourced by directly impacted sectors such as tourism, maritime trade, and fisheries (WWF, 2019). Marine litter is one of the main threats to biodiversity and in the Mediterranean nearly 134 species were reported to be affected (Guitart et al., 2019).

Figure 1: Coastal Hotspots of Plastic Pollution in The Mediterranean
Source: WWF, 2019: 10

The status of marine litter in the Mediterranean highlighted by UNEP as follows:

a) Most of marine litter come from land based sources;

b) Inadequate solid waste management is a major driver to generate marine litter in the region;

c) Data gaps and inconsistency exists at national, sub regional and regional levels;

d) Monitoring of marine litter needs substantive improvement; and

e) There is high potential to implement recycling and prevention measures in the region (UNEP, 2013).

To address this critical issue, UNEP/MAP[ii] developed the Regional Plan on the Management of Marine Litter in the Mediterranean which entered into force in 2014.

Marine Litter in İzmir

Izmir has a population of 4.5 million and situated around Izmir Bay (Figure 2).  The Inner Bay is the central business district of the city, where many commercial, touristic, recreational and residential activities are accommodated. İzmir Port also operates in this area.

Figure 2: Izmir Bay and The City
Source: Based on Planetobserver İzmir Map

İzmir has considerable natural assets in its coastal areas. 101 km of the entire coast (629 km) is comprised of natural beaches. As of the year 2020, 52 beaches and 2 marinas awarded with blue flag[iii]. Another issue of importance regarding marine and coastal areas is the protection zones bearing national and international significance. All of these and more make İzmir vulnerable for marine litter problem. Consequently, Metropolitan Municipality of İzmir carries out projects to control and decrease pollution in İzmir Bay.

The vision in this sense is stated as “achieving a swimmable bay”. Water quality in the bay is monitored regularly by measurements from 11 different sampling points. Environmental Protection and Control Branch of the municipality carries out activities to clean up litter from sea surface and coast in the Inner Bay. In the Inner Bay, from 40 km of coastline, 640 tons of floating garbage was collected in 2018, 450 tons in 2019 and 280 tons by September 2020. The collected garbage is composed of both organic and inorganic waste and the composition changes from season to season. In terms of amounts, when we think of the whole regional coastline, the pollution can be considered quite higher.

Source: İzmir Metropolitan Municipality Web Site
Source: İzmir Metropolitan Municipality Web Site
Source: İzmir Metropolitan Municipality Web Site
Source: İzmir Metropolitan Municipality Web Site

Limited studies on the quantity and quality of the pollution in Izmir reveal that most of the surface and coastal pollution is sourced by plastics, as the situation in the globe. Kızılelma (2019) investigated three sample areas in coasts of İzmir and point out that %92 of solid waste pollution is plastic wastes. Plastic bottle caps are the most common type of waste. Güngören (2019) focused on two beaches in coasts of Urla district and note that plastic wastes compose %82 of all wastes.

Possible Approaches for Solution…

Possible policy measures for İzmir are not different from the Mediterranean context. First of all, marine litter and its pressure to İzmir Bay has to be properly monitored and assessed. Data gaps have to be fulfilled. Secondly, besides an efficient and effective collecting activity, measures have to be taken to stop litter with an emphasis to its source. This is highly related with public promotion and governance. Mathews and Stretz (2019) proposes six comprehensive –from source to sea- steps listed below to combat marine litter problem at the initial phase.

  1. Characterize the sources, types, behaviour and impacts of plastics in riverine and marine environments;
  2. Identify who is impacted by plastic pollution, both directly and indirectly, who contributes to plastic leakage and who can provide solutions;
  3. Diagnose how waste is managed/mismanaged and how the current governance framework is or is not preventing plastic from entering the riverine and marine environments;
  4. Describe the changes needed to prevent plastic leakage, e.g. governance, waste management services, infrastructure, behaviour change, design, production and use of plastic goods, etc.;
  5. Develop interventions to prevent plastic leakage, at local to global scales and identify financing mechanisms for these interventions; and
  6. Monitor the outcomes of the interventions, identify key uncertainties and gaps in knowledge that need to be addressed, disseminate learning globally and manage for progressive development (Mathews and Stretz, 2019).

In İzmir, thirdly, considerable innovation ecosystem of the city composed of universities, technology centers, institutes and innovative startups should be focused on what technology-based solutions can be adopted and how the related processes can be improved. These solutions no doubt should be designed and selected in a way which is definitely suitable to the features and needs of the region. There is a wide range of action area in technology development differing from new and environment-friendly materials to electric and autonomous systems, from advanced recycling methods to new tools of governance.

This framework outlined above can be further expanded. What is unquestionable is that there are too many steps to be taken locally all around the world with regard to marine litter to protect our lives and blue economy.


[i] For a comprehensive review of harm caused by marine litter to ecology and economy, see Werner et al. (2016)

[ii] Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) was established in 1975 as a multilateral environmental agreement in the context of the Regional Seas Programme of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

[iii] Blue Flag is one of the world’s most recognized volunteer awards for beaches, marinas, and operators of sustainable boat tourism in Turkey. See http://www.mavibayrak.org.tr/en/Default.aspx 

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