Nearly all the waste created by the surge in tourism over the summer months in countries like Italy, France and Turkey is plastic litter, says WWF in a new report.
In a matter of weeks over the holiday season the rise in plastic marine pollution contributes to the estimated 150m tonnes of plastic in the ocean.
WWF said in its report the majority of plastic waste polluting the Mediterranean Sea comes from Turkey and Spain, followed by Italy, Egypt and France – countries to which more than 34 million British holidaymakers are preparing to travel this year.
Tanya Steele, chief executive of WWF, said holidaymakers were leaving behind a toxic legacy of plastic waste.
“The birds, fish and turtles of the Mediterranean are choking on plastic… plastic is ending up in the fish and seafood we eat on holiday.
“We’re asking people to think about how they can cut down on the amount of single-use plastic they use and throw away on holiday,” she said.
Steele urges holidaymakers to drink tap water where it is safe to do so, refuse plastic straws and skip the purchase of inflatable pool toys.
“We can all be part of the solution and not the problem,” she said.
Recent pictures of Bournemouth beach after the Bank Holiday weekend in the UK showed mountains of plastic waste littered across the sand.
In Europe plastics account for 95% of the waste in the open sea, posing a major threat to marine life, says WWF.
After China, Europe is the second largest producer of plastic in the world, producing 27m tonnes of plastic waste. The continent dumps up to an estimated 500,000 tonnes of macroplastics and 130,000 tonnes of microplastics in the sea every year, the report says.
But delays and gaps in plastic waste management in most Mediterranean countries mean only a third of the 60m tonnes of plastic produced is recycled. Half of all plastic waste in Italy, France and Spain ends up in landfills.
Home to almost 25,000 plant and animal species – of which 60% are unique to the region – the Mediterranean holds only 1% of the world’s water but contains 7% of all of the world’s microplastic waste. Plastics have also been found in oysters and mussels, while crisp packets and cigarettes have been found in large fish, WWF says.
Plastic waste remains in the environment for hundreds of years. Every plastic cup left by a tourist on a beach takes 50 years to break down, every plastic bag takes 20 years, and a fishing line can remain in the sea for up to 600 years, the report said.
The Mediterranean, semi-enclosed by three continents and home to intense human activity, creates a trap for plastics which today account for 95% of marine litter in the sea.
But Europe is in danger of being left behind on action against single-use plastic by emerging economies. In the most ambitious global action yet to curb plastic waste, India this week announced it was banning all single use plastics by 2022.