the Clean Sea Life project

An extraordinary awareness campaign that in four years involved 170.000 people, removed 112 tons of waste from Italian coasts and inspired legislations to reduce and prevent marine litter – this is the legacy of Clean Sea Life, a flagship project of the LIFE programme (2016-2021). Please read the project’s  Layman’s report and its Final report. 

Clean Sea LIFE won the #LIFEAward22 – Environment category and also the Citizens’ Prize – thank you!

Partner of the Clean Sea Life project, supported by the EU LIFE programme were: Parco Nazionale dell’Asinara (beneficiary), CoNISMaFondazione CetaceaLegambienteMedSharks and Centro Velico Caprera.


what is marine litter

Even the most remote corner of the Mediterranean Sea is invaded by marine litter – items that are discarded, abandoned or lost at sea. Litter is a major threat to marine ecosystems and represents a growing concern for the environment, the economy and health. The Mediterranean Sea, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, has also become one of the areas most affected by marine litter and microplastics, due to the amount of people living on its shores and to currents that trap within the basin any item that ever ends up in the sea.

From anchovies to whales, from turtles to birds, hundreds of Mediterranean marine species are affected by this kind of pollution, sometimes with fatal results. Microplastics are of particular concern as they absorb and concentrate dissolved pollutants and, due to their small size, are easily ingested by minute organisms, with consequences that are still unclear.

Professional fishing and shipping are both significant sources of marine litter. However marine litter mostly originates from land: from illegal landfills or badly managed municipal waste, it is often carried downstream by rivers or inefficient sewage treatment plants. Another major source of litter in the Mediterranean Sea are recreational and tourist activities: Clean Sea LIFE therefore focused its awareness-raising activities on the ‘users of the sea’.

the Clean Sea Life project

The aim of the Clean Sea LIFE project is to reverse the accumulation of marine litter along Italian coasts by raising awareness of the issue, inspiring changes in attitude in citizens, encouraging co-responsibility and disseminating good management practices among tourism operators and authorities. The awareness campaign aims at a concrete and short-term goal – recovering quantities of marine litter – and a long-term goal, which is to induce all sea lovers to get actively involved in the protection of the sea during their activities. The specific objectives are:

  • To increase awareness of marine litter, empowering citizens to become part of the solution
  • To remove existing litter, including lost fishing gear, and prevent further littering
  • To promote “fishing for litter” initiatives and to train fishing industry professionals in responsible practices
  • To provide guidelines for the management of marine litter, increase exchange of knowledge, the uptake of best practices and assist authorities in achieving a Good Environmental Status of the sea, as required under the MSFD.

In four years Clean Sea LIFE developed a community of operators, clubs and citizens committed to take co-responsibility in the fight against marine litter. The main players were nautical, diving and recreational fishing clubs, associations, marinas, tourist and beach operators who modified their operating practices, promoted regular clean-up activities and raised the awareness of their members, students and visitors. Olympic athletes and leading public figures became project ambassadors, promoting more environmentally friendly behaviour among citizens.

In addition to the many activities carried out with students, both in classrooms and at the beach, Clean Sea LIFE provided specific training for teachers and informal educators (e.g. environmental guides and instructors of nautical and underwater activities), so as to ensure that awareness on marine litter will continue well after the end of the project. A multitude of beach and seafloor clean-ups organised by project partners, which involved thousands of people, included scientific monitoring and specific citizen science activities to identify waste and its origin.

Better management practices, to reduce waste production and encouraging the public to actively participate in the fight against marine litter, were drafted with the operators that joined the Clean Sea LIFE project. These good practices, coupled with the expertise developed during the project, formed the core of the project’s Guidelines, which were disseminated to operators, authorities and the general public. The map of the areas of marine litter build-up along the Italian coastline, drawn up with the results of all project activities and targeted questionnaires, was an evidence-based resource that Clean Sea LIFE provided the authorities to fight marine litter more effectively.


An intense communication effort was sustained through the four years of the Clean Sea LIFE project: over 1,000 public meetings and lectures were held in museums, at clubs and associations, in classrooms, at the beach and even on military vessels. To promote a sense of personal responsibility, awareness-raising activities consistently reduced the abstract problem of marine litter – often associated only with the so-called ‘plastic islands’ in the Pacific Ocean – to a Mediterranean and local level, highlighting the direct link between some of the most frequent marine litter items and people’s careless habits. Specific communication campaigns were launched to prevent littering, particularly of cigarette butts, balloons and recreational fishing lines. Others encouraged coastal clean-ups and the replacement of disposable products with durable ones, such as flasks instead of plastic bottles. Interviews and videos relayed the messages of the project’s ambassadors, as well as examples of virtuous and easily replicable practices adopted by ‘local heroes’ on social media.

Specific evidence-based reports of emerging issues were produced, increasing the visibility of both the marine litter issue and the project itself, while a suite of practical tips were proposed to encourage the general public to change its habits. The focus on visual messages, with hundreds of original photos and videos produced, made the most of the power of social media: posts were often re- launched thousands of times, with three reaching around 500,000 people each. Finally, to reinforce the bond with the project and the sense of community, Clean Sea LIFE constantly maintained a conversation with the public through the project’s social media, answering questions and requests for support, and sharing photos and activities of the volunteers.

Traditional media followed closely Clean Sea LIFE, with hundreds of features in National and International media, with a reach of 34 million Italians.

fishing for litter

Fishing for litter was one of Clean Sea LIFE’s most successful initiatives. Pilot projects were carried out in four Italian regions, in Porto Torres (Sardinia), Manfredonia (Puglia), Rimini (Emilia-Romagna) and San Benedetto del Tronto (Marche). The project involved a total of 118 vessels, the largest fleet ever engaged in this activity in Italy. The fishermen brought ashore 80 tons of marine litter caught up in nets. The aim of the pilot project was not just to remove a considerable amount of waste from the environment, but also to identify with fishermen and local authorities a feasible management process for marine litter.

Clean Sea LIFE assisted both branches of the Italian Parliament to fine-tune the ’Salva Mare’ law by testing the draft regulation during the project’s pilot fishing for litter activities and providing evidence-based reports; the law was finally approved in May 2022.  This activity deeply touched Pope Francis who invited the fishermen to a private audience, where he praised their efforts: “This project is an example of how civil society can and must contribute to tackling global issues, stimulating the responsibility of institutions”. Clean Sea LIFE presented the Holy Father a flag of the LIFE programme, as a testament to the efforts of all Italian and European LIFE projects to protect biodiversity.

Operazione Spazzamare

Operation Spazzamare, organised by Clean Sea LIFE and the Italian Coast Guard on 8 June 2020, World Oceans Day, was the largest underwater clean-up event ever carried out in Italy. The activity involved 40 dive centres and the Coast Guard’s five Underwater Units. Hundreds of divers were deployed in 12 Regions and 37 sites such as harbours, marinas and areas of natural and archaeological significance. They removed 12 tons of waste, which was then disposed of by local authorities testing locally adapted managing measures for marine litter.

Although Clean Sea LIFE is now officially closed, this event has now become a traditional activity involving each year dozens of volunteer diving centers and the local authorities on World Ocean’s Day, June 8th.

microplastics in cosmetics

A Clean Sea LIFE survey of hundreds of cosmetics, presented to the Italian Senate, provided evidence to support a law banning the sale of products containing microplastics in Italy. The study revealed the presence of significant amounts of tiny plastic flakes in more than one hundred products, mostly exfoliating cosmetics, even in products that claimed to be natural and environmentally friendly. Laboratory analysis estimated that in a 250 ml bottle of a specific product there were more than 27 grams of plastic, amounting to about 1,600,000 microbeads.

The Italian regulation, which preceded the European ban, was approved by the Italian Parliament on December 30th 2017; as of January 1, 2020, the presence of microplastics in cosmetics is prohibited in Italy.

For this initiative, which was widely reported in the media, the Ministry of Environment presented Clean Sea LIFE as an example of Best Practice at the ‘G7 Plastics Workshop in the context of 2030 Agenda implementation and towards G7 collaborative activities’, because it “enhances and promotes a preventive approach to microplastics management”.


Partner of the Clean Sea Life project, supported by the EU LIFE programme., are Parco Nazionale dell’Asinara (beneficiary), CoNISMa, Fondazione Cetacea, Legambiente, MedSharks and Centro Velico Caprera.

the LIFE programme

LIFE is the EU’s financial instrument supporting environmental, nature conservation and climate action projects throughout the EU. Since 1992, LIFE has co-financed more than 4500 projects. For the 2014-2020 funding period, LIFE will contribute approximately €3.4 billion to the protection of the environment and climate. Learn more about the LIFE Programme here!

And read about other LIFE projects dealing with plastic waste here