Murky Task for Greece’s Garbage Collectors of the Seas

In this Thursday, June 29, 2017 photo provided by Aegean Rebreath volunteer divers collect bottles and plates from the sea floor in Saronic gulf near of Athens. Greece has the European Union’s longest coastline, poor waste management and an addiction to single-use plastic that littering the country’s seabed. To fight the problems, volunteer divers are working as underwater garbage collectors to clear debris - mostly plastic - that is littering the sea floor. (Vassilis Tsiairis/Aegean Rebreath via AP)

One word. Plastics.

When it was uttered in the 1967 film The Graduate, it presaged how the world would change with the advent of the material that soon became ubiquitous and irreplaceable but now has cluttered landfills and the bottom of the seas, including off Greece.

It’s literally everywhere under the water but out of sight so the people who put it there, and those who didn’t, don’t know it’s there anymore even as plastics – and other tossed out waste products – are lining the bottom of the seas and oceans so fast that in 30 years there will be more plastic than fish under the waters, The World Economic Forum said.

There are those who combat the problem, like George Sarelakos and the volunteers on the diving team Aegean Rebreath he founded in 2017 to remove plastics and garbage and rubbish and refuse from the sea, including around the postcard-perfect Poros where they pulled up tires, shopping carts, cassette players – and lots of plastic.

“People throw everything down there that they throw away at home. “And because it’s under the sea, it’s invisible to them,” Sarelakos, a 39-year-old management consultant told the United States’ National Public Radio (NPR) which reported on the dilemma.

“There’s litter like every 10 centimeters (4 inches) down there,” he said, frowning in disapproval. “Plastics are everywhere.”

Achilleas Plitharas, a policy campaigner in WWF’s Athens office, told NPR’s Joanna Kakissis that, “The plastics debate has more or less the same conflicts and barriers with the climate change debate. We all know how bad things are but at the same time we haven’t found a common solution, a common path to work on.”

In the Mediterranean Sea, where Turkey and North African countries also dump garbage, 95 percent of waste in the water and on beaches is plastic, the World Wildlife Fund said, pointing to the enormity of the problem Sarelakos and his underwater garbage and plastic collectors face.

It’s a thankless and likely futile task, like Sisyphus underwater finding the problem just rolling back on him more every time he nears what seems to be the end. In a nod, the European Parliament’s response was just to ban single-use plastics like cups, cutlery and straws but left it up to teach of the European Union’s countries to decide whether to go along – in 2021.

With the longest coastline in the EU and one of the worst recycling rates – Greeks frequently toss other garbage into blue recycling bins right next to rubbish bins, not caring where it winds up – trying to make them care what goes into the famed seas that provide fish to eat and lure tourists isn’t high on their radar chart.

A recent EU report showed that Greece recycles only 17 percent of its waste, the second-worst rate in the bloc, which wants member states to recycle half their waste by 2020, the report said, the goal essentially impossible to reach and with only activists trying to bring the change.

Greeks love plastic almost as much as cigarettes, from cups to straws to bags, although supermarket customers and those in retail stores now have to pay 4 cents if they want one, which hasn’t stopped the tide yet.

Greece’s Research Institute of Retail Consumer Goods estimated the average Greek uses more than 300 plastic bags per year, the report said, compared to four in Finland, according to the European Commission. Plitharas said only about 10-12 percent of plastic in Greece is recycled, one of the lowest levels in the EU.

The Aegean Rebreath only half-jokingly call themselves the trash collectors of the sea. Sarelakos estimated the 15-member diving team has gathered about 15 tons of waste from the seas in the last 18 months.

“You know, when we dive, we see parts of plastic bags, almost turning into microplastics and floating around,” he said. “Fish eat this…Whatever we throw into the sea, (it goes) back to our stomachs.”

Elina Liarou, a marine scientist who works with Aegean Rebreath, catalogues the trash before a municipal crew gathers it to send back to Athens for recycling and upcycling, which involves reusing recyclable waste in creative ways. “We’re spreading it out here on the pier while we sort it out,” she said. “Lots of people are walking by. Seeing what’s in the sea really shocks them.”

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