INTERVIEW: Fighting plastic waste in the Mediterranean's Blue Economy

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 11 Jul 2023

Almotaz Abadi, Deputy Secretary General for Water, Environment and Blue Economy at the Union for the Mediterranean, discusses the need to change the narrative around the endangered ecosystem of the Mediterranean Sea.

Almotaz Abadi
Almotaz Abadi, Deputy Secretary General for Water, Environment and Blue Economy, for the Union for the Mediterranean


On 13 July, the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) will celebrate its 15th anniversary. The UfM is a grouping of 42 countries, including all member states of the European Union along with 15 other countries along the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.

Managing the hazards endangering the ecosystem and environmental resilience of the Mediterranean has been a key issue on the agenda of this regional organisation since its inception.

It is set to take even higher priority in the coming years, with the pressing need to address threats related to marine litter and sea warming.

“It is an emergency situation for sure,” said Almotaz Abadi, UfM Deputy Secretary General for Water, Environment and Blue Economy. Abadi spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly ahead of the UfM's 15th anniversary, and in the wake of an appeal for environmental action put out by the organisation last month.

The Mediterranean is in a multifaceted crisis, reports Abadi. 730 tonnes of trash are dumped in the sea on a daily basis, despite being a destination for around 360 million tourists every year. Over 200 million people also live around the Mediterranean in its 22 coastal cities.

The region is at the epicentre of climate change as well. “The Mediterranean is one of the climate change hot spots; it comes second only to the North Pole,” said Abadi.

He explained that average temperatures around the Mediterranean are around 2C higher than the world average, and that the region is growing warmer 20 percent faster than the global average. Abadi added that sea levels are forecasted to rise at least 50 centimetres, and could reach as high as 190 centimetres.

According to Abadi, recent studies on biodiversity reveal alarming signs.

 Plastic litter is descending far beneath the surface of the sea and aggressively impacting marine life, including endangered species. Some countries, especially those in conflict situations, are more vulnerable to these challenges and must act promptly to mitigate them.

“The entire sea is affected… even at the coasts of the countries of the north of the Mediterranean, yes,” Abadi stated.

Aware of the gravity of the situation, in 2013, the UfM launched its flagship project, Plastic Busters. The project is designed to address the entire cycle of marine litter, from monitoring and assessment to prevention and mitigation.

The project also strengthens networking between pelagic and coastal marine protected areas.

Key activities under the Plastic Busters project included removing litter and derelict fishing gear; supporting recycling mechanisms such as the Healthy Seas Initiative; and establishing return/deposit systems for packaging. It also works on enhancing awareness among stakeholders and changing their attitudes towards waste.

Last month, the UfM launched its most recent initiative, TouMali (Tourism Marine Litter). TouMali is designed to manage the solid waste that inevitably comes with frequent tourism; one of the Mediterranean's largest industries.

Tourist activities present one of the most significant environmental challenges for the UfM, especially because of their frequent use of nonessential single-use goods and packaging.

Abadi said that reducing tourism around the Mediterranean is not at all on the agenda of TouMali, or any UfM environmental initiative. To the contrary, he argued, the UfM is fully aware of the need for tourism and for development at large.

What the UfM is proposing, explained Abadi, is a balanced approach.

Economic activities such as tourism can continue to grow – especially given the employment needs of most Mediterranean countries – all while preserving the sea's irreplaceable ecosystem.

Abadi recalled that last year, member states of the UfM adopted two ambitious ministerial declarations on environment and climate action and on sustainable sea-based "Blue Economy."

“We need to create jobs and enhance [the opportunities] for the youth [around the Mediterranean]. What is required is to apply strict regulations [and to exchange] the know-how,” Abadi said.

“[But] we are aware that more than 60 per cent of the populations of the south and east of the Mediterranean are youth, and that of those there are 30 percent suffering unemployment,” he said. Ultimately, he added, environmental sustainability is essential to economic sustainability.

Abadi noted that for years, UfM projects have focused not only on introducing systems that are designed to protect the ecosystem of the Mediterranean, but also to promote cooperation among its coastal countries for their common benefit. “Transboundary management [is of the essence]… contamination [does] not recognise political boundaries,” he said.

Today, Abadi praised the UfM's considerable progress in promoting cooperation, not just among Mediterranean countries, but also between governments and civil society.

Civil society, he said, has played a crucial role in minimizing the use of plastics. He said that in both Egypt and Jordan, as part of the Plastic Busters Project, some 50 civil society groups have been involved in beach cleaning to control marine litter.

These, he argued, are success stories worth replicating for “marine litter to be eradicated from its starting point on land” before ever reaching the sea.

Abadi said that the UFM will continue encouraging member states to join their projects aiming to minimize plastic waste, and adopt circular economic models that allow for waste to be recycled.

At the COP27 summit, hosted last year by UfM member state Egypt, there was a clear appeal for attention to the emergency situation in the Mediterranean.

At COP28, scheduled to convene in the UAE in November, Abadi promised that the UfM will carry the voice of the region to the world in pursuit of cooperation and coordination, especially on projects related to species conservation and research.

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