Plastic is already one of the main threats to the coastal ecosystem of the Costa del Sol and its surrounding Alboran Sea. The problem, say experts, is increasing and will continue to do so without specific policies to stop the massive use of plastic packaging.
Researchers can confirm their fears now thanks to a European Directive that in recent years has required, among other things, EU countries to track their marine waste. Studies, carried out in Spain by the Spanish Oceanographic Institute, measure the quantities of macroplastics - those that can be seen by the naked eye - and microplastics - particles smaller than five millimetres.
An expert at the Spanish Oceanographic Centre in the Balearics (responsible for studying plastic pollution in the Spanish Mediterranean), Salud Deudero, explains that micro-plastics can be made up of their original object (for example, cosmetics which are made up of these particles), or as a consequence of the fragmentation of bigger plastics.
Deudero pointed out that people often forget the plastics that can be found in textiles, such as acrylic sweaters. Washing machines are unable to retain these particles in their filters, and these end up in the sea before the water can be treated.
"The pumping of microparticles into the sea is so great that they already form part of the ecosystem," said Deudero.
In the case of the Alboran Sea, the part of the Mediterranean that bathes the Costa del Sol, an estimated 25,000 small plastic objects were found on the beaches in 72 campaigns carried out between 2013 and 2018 as part of these studies. Many of these items were unidentifiable pieces of plastic, or originated as rope, bottle tops or cotton buds, among other items.
On the Costa del Sol's beaches, the level of microplastics is on average 30 particles in every kilogramme of sand, equivalent to 500 particles per square metre. In this case they measure less than one millimetre; "smaller than usual", said the researcher. The majority are fragments of polystyrene.
The problem is even bigger on the seabed. The average there for the Alboran Sea is 130 microplastic particles per kilo of sediment, a figure that rises to as much as 300 particles per kilo in the province of Malaga - an "alarming" figure, said the expert.
The transparent blue microfibres come from bottles and cellophane. "If we moved away from using plastic packaging and bottles and use less textile fibres the change would be spectacular," stated Deudero. However, the expert recognises that quantitatively the negative effect of macroplastics is even greater as these are directly responsible for the deaths of many species.
In terms of who is responsible, 26 per cent of all the plastic in the Alboran Sea is produced by tourism; 18 per cent by maritime transport; eight per cent by sanitation and one per cent by fishing activities.