Towards a plastic-free Aegean Sea
Environment for Europeans spoke to Professor George Papatheodorou, leader of the Greek LIFE DEBAG project. Against a backdrop of legislative change, his team are using an awareness-raising campaign to help stop plastic carrier bags ending up as marine litter.
What was inspiration for LIFE DEBAG?
Back in the later 1990s, the Laboratory of Marine Geology and Physical Oceanography at the University of Patras started surveying litter in the sea and on beaches. These were the first surveys of marine litter in the Aegean and Ionian archipelagos.
Professor George Papatheodorou,
leader of the Greek LIFE DEBAG project
The problem is that Greece is the “kingdom” of the plastic bag. It is one of the EU Member States with the highest per capita consumption of single-use plastic carrier bags. They are among the litter items most commonly found in our semi-enclosed gulfs. The other triggers were the EU rules adopted in April 2015 for the reduction of lightweight plastic carrier bags.
What has the project done?
We have been very successful. We developed and implemented a campaign at both national and local level to prevent and reduce plastic bag pollution in the marine environment of Greece. The national campaign has focused on TV, radio and newspaper content, and dissemination of information through events and workshops.
We chose the island of Syros for the local, more intensive campaign. A number of issues played a role. Syros is the capital of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, a tourism hub, it has an educated population and a very supportive mayor.
The most important point – and the most challenging – is that, as far as we know, it is the first time that an intensive marine litter awareness and information campaign has been systematically monitored for its impact on the natural environment. This has involved surveys of supermarket customers and monitoring the amount of plastic bags through beach clean-up campaigns, and airborne drone and underwater camera surveys.
We did door-to-door campaigns on Syros, visiting homes and shops in 2016, and hotels and tourist accommodation in 2017. We handed out information material and distributed over 10 000 cotton bags with the project's logo and motto: “Leave plastic bags in the past... and not in our seas”. You can still see a lot of people on Syros using them for their daily shopping, and I have even seen the bags in Athens!
One positive result is that over 200 shop owners signed a voluntary agreement to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags.
We have held three 'plastic bag free weeks' on the island, with concerts, events, workshops, information kiosks, and we've also had schools on board.
So far we have carried out 15 bi-monthly beach clean-ups using the Marine Strategy Framework Directive's protocols for marine litter. We photograph all litter found and we use a very accurate photo coding system. We have collected and recorded over 57 000 items.
We used drones to detect and monitor litter on remote beaches and underwater cameras towed behind small boats for seafloor litter monitoring. Both approaches can be replicated at low cost and we will try to facilitate this by making our software and the experience we have gained available for citizen science.
What has been the impact of these actions?
There is no doubt that changing people's environmental behaviour is the most challenging part of the project. We are very pleased that the level of awareness of residents of Syros has risen since the start of our campaign in 2015. More than half of those surveyed now do their shopping with a reusable bag, at least occasionally, and agree there should be a plastic bag fee as a disincentive for their use. This compares to only about 30% of residents at the start of the project.
There has been a 70% reduction in plastic bags on the beaches of Syros in the first two years of the project, as well as a 30% reduction in plastic bags on the seafloor of Ermoupolis Bay. We believe this is a direct result of our awareness campaign on the island.
How did you contribute to the introduction of a fee for single-use plastic bags in Greece?
Under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment and Energy we arranged a series of national consultations with all relevant stakeholders – from plastics producers to supermarkets – to define policy agreements for single-use plastic bags. We then took those recommendations for legislation on lightweight plastic carrier bags to the Greek Parliament's Special Permanent Committee for Environmental Protection. Many of the recommendations were incorporated into the law that came into effect at the beginning of 2018. This set an environmental fee of four cents per plastic bag. Since the law came in, there has been a 50% reduction in single-use plastic bags across Greece and we expect a further reduction when the environmental fee increases to 10 cents per bag next January.
What impact has LIFE DEBAG had on other Greek islands?
There are a lot of plastic bag reduction campaigns now taking place all over the Aegean Sea. We strongly believe that our project was the triggering mechanism for those projects. We passed on our educational tools and monitoring tools – all of them are using our methods and our approaches.
What happens next?
I think the next step is to try to make an association or a network, combine our activities and develop some priorities for reducing single-use plastic items. The Aegean is an amazing sea with a lot of islands – tourist islands. If we work together, we can turn it into a plastic-free archipelago. And because the Aegean Sea is very well known all over Europe, what we do here can inspire others in the campaign against plastic litter.