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Expedition MED: raising awareness and conducting research to combat plastic pollution in our seas

30.07.2015

The seas and oceans, the economic and environmental heritage of our planet, are currently facing a number of threats: overfishing, toxic discharge, climate change, to name but a few. However, they are also being threatened by plastic pollution, which is now one of the major challenges for sea and ocean conservation. Expedition MED, a French NGO with the slogan “stop plastic pollution”, is at the forefront of research into plastic in the Mediterranean Sea. It stopped over in Marseille on 10 July.

Credit: Expedition MED

What is the impact of plastic pollution?

“80% of marine debris originates on land and 80-95% of this debris is plastic”, according to Expedition MED. Plastic pollution presents a major risk to health and to the environment. At times, the concentration of microplastics in the oceans equals the concentration of plankton, and so plastics move up the food chain from the fish that ingest it, right up to human beings. Macro-waste also threatens numerous marine species, causing injury and choking.
Today, the Mediterranean Sea is thought to be the “6th largest accumulation zone of marine debris in the world” . One of Expedition MED’s objectives is to quantify and map this pollution to produce consolidated data on this phenomenon.


An interview with B. Dumontet, Founder of Expedition MED

How plastic pollution in the Mediterranean Sea is measured

Since 2010, Expedition MED has used a yacht to conduct annual sampling campaigns along the Mediterranean coast, to determine levels of plastic pollution and to make a quantitative and cartographical assessment of this pollution. Its 2015 campaign will focus mainly on the coasts of France and Italy.

Samples are usually taken at sea using Manta nets, but they can also use sand samples taken from the coastline. In this way, the Expedition’s sampling campaigns have already taken it along the coasts of Spain, France, Italy, Tunisia, etc. Samples are taken in accordance with a strict protocol (in terms of time, speed and location) and direct observations are then made on board the boat and on land. These samples make it possible to measure the plastic levels per km2 and per m3 of water, the plastic to plankton ratio, the type of plastic, etc.

The aim of these collections is three-fold: to determine whether there are concentrated areas of debris; to adjust the overall estimations of microplastics polluting the ocean surface; to identify the main sources of marine debris.
Annual monitoring not only means that the resulting mapping can be refined, but also that changes can be identified over time. Consolidated data is available to the Observatoire Oceanologique (the Ocean Observatory) at Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Expedition MED’s research can be followed via its regular blog.
And you can keep up with the Expedition’s reports on the NGO’s Facebook page.

Credit: Expédition MED

Expedition MED: a good example of “participatory science”

What makes Expedition MED stand out is its unique approach that it calls “participatory science”. Eco-volunteers are invited to take part in the sampling campaigns and to help scientists conduct their research protocols. This is genuine “Solidarity Leave” (an informal concept of granting special leave from work to undertake voluntary service), and so new volunteers are taken on board for each leg of the sampling campaign.

In addition to this citizen involvement, Expedition MED also harnesses the engagement of other partners (businesses, local authorities, etc.) in a concerted effort to combat plastic pollution. One such initiative is “Ecoseastem”, a research project, launched by SUEZ environnement in partnership with the Nice Côte d’Azur city authorities, the Oceanographic laboratory at Villefranche-sur-Mer and Expédition MED. This project aims to study pollution caused by synthetic clothing fibres that are released into the wastewater networks when clothes are machine-washed. Clothes shed plastic microfibres that end up in wastewater treatment plants where they are not captured by the plants’ conventional filtration systems. The “Ecoseastem” programme aims to pinpoint the type of pollution caused by plastic microfibres, assess how this pollution impacts the natural ecosystem and identify the best available technology to treat this type of pollution, such as dynamic microfiltration.