Most Garbage Off Israel's Coast Is From Plastic Bags and Packaging

Despite promises, Oceanographic Institute reports situation is not getting better, recommends filtering out plastic garbage from municipal drainage systems that empty into the sea

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Plastics found during a marine environment monitoring study, Ashdod, Israel, 2019.
Plastics found during a marine environment monitoring study, Ashdod, Israel, 2019.Credit: Dr. Yael Segal / Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

About 70 percent of the garbage floating off Israel’s Mediterranean coast and in the Red Sea off Eilat consists of remnants of plastic bags and plastic food packaging. Much of it disintegrates into particles that animals mistake for food, according to a new report issued by the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute that surveyed the year 2019.

Compared to areas of the Western Mediterranean, Israel’s coastal waters have a high concentration of small plastic particles, said the report, which also noted that since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring, face masks and rubber gloves can be found on Israel’s beaches in greater numbers. For the first time, the report, which was commissioned by the environmental protection and energy ministries, also contains information on the extent of the presence of garbage in the Red Sea off Eilat.

The high concentration of plastic in Israel’s coastal waters is similar to what was found in the prior three years – an indication that there has been no improvement in the situation for some time.

Plastics found during a marine monitoring study, October 2020.Credit: Dr. Yael Segal / Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute

Near the bottom of the Mediterranean, at depths ranging between 20 and 1,700 meters (65 to 5,600 feet), pieces of plastic bags and food packaging were the main type of trash that was found. Concentrations were particularly high at depths of 200 to 500 meters, where 4,000 to 10,000 items per square kilometer were found.

Two-thirds of the garbage was found to have originated in Israel. Some of the garbage is swept off Israel’s coast from neighboring countries by sea currents. At the Bat Galim Beach in Haifa, half of the garbage was found to have come from outside Israel.

Close to shore, the concentration of garbage was significantly lower, although researchers have found increased amounts of plastic in the water after the winter rainy season. The report’s authors theorize that unlike the beaches themselves, where visitors are the main source of garbage, most of the plastic in the sea comes from urban waste that flows through municipal drainage systems and streams. The highest concentration of garbage was found at the mouth of the Poleg stream in the Sharon region, north of Tel Aviv.

Higher concentrations of microplastic particles – small fragments of plastic – were found along Israel’s coast than in the Western Mediterranean. Between 50 and 80 percent of the microplastic found by the researchers off Israel was either white or transparent, thereby posing a higher potential for ecological harm because of animals are more likely to swallow it, thinking that it is food.

As noted, survey of the country’s shoreline this year revealed trash generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including masks and gloves, but the report does not provide details regarding quantities. Between 400 and 1,000 items were found on average per 100 meters of Israeli beach – which is lower than the global average. The authors of the report attribute this relatively positive finding to the regular cleanup of Israeli beaches, some of which is carried out through Environmental Protection Ministry programs. Last week, however, the European Union issued recommendations that set a standard limiting trash on beaches to 20 items per 100 meters of shoreline – considerably less than the current situation in Israel.

A face mask on a beach during the coronavirus crisis, Israel, 2020.Credit: Dr. Yael Segal / Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute

As a member of the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean, Israel is obligated to a regional plan to reduce garbage in the sea and along its coastline. The plan requires member countries to take a long list of steps to reduce sea trash and its harmful affects on the maritime environment, as well as on populations living near the coast.

The author of the new survey on the state of Israel’s coastal waters, Dr. Yael Segal of the Oceanographic Institute, recommends cleaning up streams and municipal drainage systems that flow into the sea before the rainy season begins and installing filters at the end of the drainage pipes. She also suggested continuing efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags and packaging in Israel. Many of these steps are within the area of responsibility of local governments and stream and drainage authorities.

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