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Greece & Lebanon

Chapter 5: Plastic Waves Toward the Sea

Kostas Koutsafikis' memory is a manifesto of protest from the Aegean Sea. At 64 years old, from his porch, he recalls the sea of his childhood. "It was like swimming above a garden full of flowers." Lost on the map, midway between Athens and Thessaloniki, his home is a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, surrounded by olive trees and connected by a single narrow and winding road to Achillio, the nearest village. A paradise with an expiration date. "Now there is more plastic on the beach than fish; I have to go down every two days to clean the sand," laments Kostas, "and if it rains, it's even worse." Lately, the sky has not been on his side. The torrential rains this week have turned the rivers, slopes, and streets of the Thessaly province into waste highways leading to the sea; the water carries all the plastics left in the open downriver.

Man picking up trash on a beach
Man picking up trash on a a beach, June 2023 / Credit: Laura Arago.

In the eastern Mediterranean, in the Lebanese city of Sidon, the extremely poor waste management worsens the problem. Mohamad Elbaba's black loafers make their way through the carpet of plastic covering the beach. In front of him, there is a giant landfill enclosed by a wall of rocks and concrete, just five meters from the sea. Elbaba, a councilor for over a decade in ecology and waste management in Lebanon's third-largest city, with over 160,000 inhabitants, anxiously watches as the mountains of waste threaten to fall into the sea. "It's been over three years since waste has been managed here; the problem keeps getting bigger and bigger," he says.

Greece and Lebanon are two examples of a global problem. Altogether, the Mediterranean receives nearly 230,000 tons of plastic annually, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a figure equivalent to throwing 17,000 plastic bottles into the water every minute. Billions of plastic particles end up in the stomachs of marine fauna, threatening their survival. The high population density along the coast and around the rivers that flow into the Mediterranean makes it the most affected area in the world by plastic pollution. If measures are not taken, by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans, as estimated by the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Elbaba points out part of the problem without artifice. "There is no money; nobody cares," he says. In Lebanon, the financial crisis in 2019 froze the government's budget for waste management, and the government has not invested a single Lebanese pound in managing the city's waste since then. The inactivity of landfills located on the waterfront causes garbage to end up in the sea. The streets of Sidon reflect the lack of control: garbage piles up at the feet of overflowing containers, on any roadside or corner, in public parks or vacant lots. And eventually, it ends up in the sea.

Two women walking in the street by a pile of trash
Two women walking in the street by a pile of trash in Beirut, Lebanon, June 2023 / Credit: Laura Arago.

Outside Beirut, Mohammed Aleil's nets confirm the catastrophe. "Often when we go out to sea, we find plastic instead of fish in the nets," he complains. Aleil is 57 years old and has spent more time at sea than on land.

After more than 40 years dedicated to fishing, his words get caught in his throat when he says, "I've never seen as much plastic as now; it's impossible to escape; it's everywhere."

There are other plastics that Aleil's eyes cannot see. No one can see them: tiny particles, invisible to the human eye, which in the Mediterranean reach record concentrations of 1.25 million fragments per square kilometer. That's nearly four times more than what is found in the "plastic island" in the northern Pacific Ocean.

"Any plastic, over time, under the sun and water, degrades and eventually becomes microplastic or nanoplastic," says Joaquim Tintoré, an oceanographer and director of SOCIB, the Coastal Ocean Observation and Prediction System of the Balearic Islands. Microplastics are particles smaller than 5mm, and nanoplastics are even smaller, measuring less than 100 nanometers, one millionth of a millimeter. They are also a plague. The Mediterranean contains only 1% of the planet's waters but concentrates 7% of all microplastics.

The lack of waste management in Mediterranean basin countries explains almost 70% of the plastic that ends up in the sea, both from beaches and from rivers that flow into the Mediterranean, such as the Ebro, the Rhône, or the Nile. Only the course of the great African river is responsible for 25% of all plastics that filter into the Mediterranean.

Waste management has always been Lebanon's Achilles' heel. In 2017, some airlines were on the verge of canceling flights to Beirut due to the threat posed by hundreds of seagulls attracted to an open landfill at the airport.

In Greece, tourist pressure leads many individuals like Kostas, who has turned his home into a guesthouse, to take charge of cleaning their piece of the sea since plastics accumulate on the coast without anyone bothering to collect them. For Anastasia Haritou, a member of the environmental NGO Isea, "the maintenance of ecosystems, not tourism, should be the top priority."

a man sitting in his kitchen
Man in his kitchen, June 2023 / Credit: Laura Arago.

Kostas' tenacity is the same that drives Mohamad Elbaba every day in Lebanon. When he took office in 2010, another huge garbage volcano presided over Sidon's main beach. In front of the old town and by the sea stood an open dump. It took Elbaba's team over five years and a United Nations fund to turn all that waste into a garden, the Mohammad Saoudi Park. A satisfied smile crosses Elbaba's face as he steps on the park's grass, but his gaze darkens as he reaches a raised bridge with views beyond the fence. In the distance, you can see the new mountain of garbage facing the sea. History repeats itself. With his hands gripping the railing, Elbaba stares at the horizon, convinced: "We will solve it again."

This article was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in La Vanguardia on 09 September 2023 in Spanish. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Beach covered in plastic, June 2023 / Credit: Laura Arago