Professor Giorgos Papatheodorou of the Marine Geology and Natural Oceanography Laboratory at Patras University. ΑΠΕ-ΜΠΕ

‘Plastic pollution of the oceans is perhaps the greatest environmental issue in the 21st century’

  • Plastic bags, plastic bottles and aluminium cans for beer and soft drinks account for roughly half the waste that finds its way into Greek seas, according to Professor Giorgos Papatheodorou of the Marine Geology and Natural Oceanography Laboratory at Patras University.”Our research has led us to an important conclusion. That 50 pct of the waste that we find in Greek seas are plastic bags, plastic water bottles and aluminium cans. This allows us to plan policies. These three packaging materials are responsible for 50 pct of the pollution load,” he said.

Speaking to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency, the professor also revealed that, based on research findings over the years, the amount of waste on the seabed has actually increased in the last 15 years, in spite of the introduction of environmental legislation to protect against this.

  • “This means that we need to make our legislative framework stricter but also tighten up the mechanisms to ensure that the legislative framework is implemented,” he said.

According to Papatheodorou, research into plastic waste in the Greek seas gradually got underway in the 1990s and continues at an increasing pace to the present day.

“I consider that the international scientific community has been taken aback by the extent of the problem, since we now consider that plastic pollution of the oceans is perhaps the greatest environmental issue that we face in the 21st century.”

Regarding Greek seas, in particular, Papatheodorou said the picture was “incomplete” in spite of research conducted by several teams in the country: “In reality we have data on the plastic pollution in the Patras Gulf, the Ionian Sea and the Saronic Gulf, where we have data that I consider to be to some degree reliable.

  • Significant densities of plastic waste have been found there at the bottom of the sea, ranging from 500 waste items per square kilometre and in the Saronic Gulf reach as high as 3,500 waste items per square kilometre.”
    Plastic is the predominant material, followed by metal, Papatheodorou told ANA, while noting that a European Union directive for a complete ban of disposable plastic by 2021 was “a move in the right direction that we must implement in Greece.”
  • “Plastics must interest us, given that they end up in the marine environment. We must link any information about restricting plastic and one-use packaging with the marine environment because this is where it inevitably turns up. Greece, as an islant complex, is therefore facing a serious problem.”

According to Papatheodorou, the EU response was belated since the seriousness of the problem that will arise in terms of marine pollution by plastics had not initially been understood, but efforts were now being made to inform and sensitise the public, combined with legislation, which he said will “slowly bring about changes in the behaviour of citizens.”

Finding where waste originates

Among the most important research results and goals, Prof. Papatheodorou noted, was to identify where the pollutants and waste come from, thus enabling action to stop pollution at its source. “Once the waste has entered the marine environment, the battle has been lost,” he noted. “The aim is to plan policies that will stop the waste.”

  • In Greece, he said, the waste predominately comes from the land (80 pct) while 20 pct originates in the sea, from shipping and leisure craft.
    “The problem has become immense; it is time for policies and their correct implementation and, in fact, more stringent policies as regards protection of the marine environment and plastics.

We don’t have time to delay any longer. Clearly, awareness and sensitisation campaigns are key and the central action we must carry out becausse it appears to have a real imprint on the marine environment. Alongside the campaigns, we must to a great degree strengthen our country in terms of recycling waste and sorting at source,” he said.

Life Debag – the programme and its aims

Prof. Papatheodorou acted as coordinator for the European programme Life Debat, which was completed in March after three years of research. Its aim was to carry out an intensive awareness and sensitisation campaign on restricting plastic bags in the marine environment.

The action was focused on the island of Syros and also on a national level and showed that a systematic campaign to inform and sensitise the public had a real impact on the marine environment.

  • “We approached citizens, we went to schools, we informed the entire island but at the same time we set up a system for monitoring the marine environment to see whether the results of the campaign have a real impact. And we found that, after three years, we have a 50-60 pct reduction in the plastic bags on Syros’ shores and a roughly 30 pct reduction of plastic bags on the sea floor of selected locations around Syros,” he said.
  • The group also released dozens of ‘digital waste items’ into the Aegean and tracked their movements based on currents, finding that a portion of these reaches Syros.

“Therefore, the island is also polluted by waste transported on currents, chiefly from the north Aegean and the Dardanelles Straits and to some degree from leisure activities, tourist traffic and accidental dumping of waste,” he said.

  • The programme also succeeded in affecting national legislation in Greece, leading to a Joint Ministerial Decree in 2017 designed to restrict the use of plastic bags, requiring that supermarkets and other retail outlets must charge for them. According to four environmental organisations, two of which are partners of Life Debag, the use of plastic bags in Greece has dropped by 54 pct in terms of units and 48 pct in terms of the quantity of plastic.

Official figures from the Hellenic Recycling Agency are expected to give a more accurate estimate of the percentage reduction for 2018, while the reduction could have been even greater if two more of Life Debag proposals had been adopted – that there be no exemption for kiosks and street markets from charging for plastic bags and the completion of a comprehensive awareness and sensitisation campaign in 2018.

Source: ANA-MPA


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