A new scientific publication by the Archipelagos Institute for Marine Conservation, entitled “First Assessment of Micro-Litter Ingested by Dolphins, Sea Turtles and Monk Seals Found Stranded along the Coasts of Samos Island, Greece”, formed the first study conducted in the Aegean quantifying the abundance of microplastic and plastics in stranded marine life. Research evaluated pollutants within 4 species of marine mammals and 2 species of sea turtles that were found dead in the shores of the NE Aegean.
The analyses were carried out in Archipelagos Institute’s laboratories, while the research was carried out in collaboration with scientists from the Department of Biomedical Sciences of Padova University, Italy, the Anton Dohrn Zoological Station in Italy and the University of Baja California Sur in Mexico. 25 marine animals were examined: 8 dolphins, 2 Mediterranean monk seals and 15 sea turtles, in all of which microplastic pollutants were detected. In particular, among other types of plastic, a total of 10,639 microplastic fibres were detected in the gastrointestinal tract of the dead marine mammals and turtles.
The results of this research confirm once again that the fragments and fibres of plastic waste exposed to the environment have already penetrated all levels of the ecosystems and food chain of the Greek seas.
Similarly alarming were the conclusions of the 14 previous scientific publications of Archipelagos Institute on microplastic pollution from 2009 to date. Plastic fragments and fibres are being detected in almost all of the many thousands of samples from various species of fish and invertebrates, marine flora, seawater and sediment.
In recent years, even smaller fragments of plastic waste, so-called nanoplastics, have emerged as much more dangerous, as they can penetrate into the tissues of organisms – also humans – with serious effects that have yet to be determined in detail.
The harmful effects of tiny plastic fragments entering the food chain are not yet fully understood. However, it should be stressed that in addition to the toxic chemicals contained in plastic from its production (heavy metals, flame retardants, phthalates, bisphenols, etc.), when plastic is left for months or years in the marine environment, it acts as a ‘sponge’, as other toxic substances found in seawater (pesticides, organochlorines, etc.) also penetrate it. Thus, when plastic fragments enter the food chain and end up in various organisms and humans, the toxic effects are multiplied.
Understanding the impacts of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems and species, as well as on human health, is very important, especially in the Mediterranean, which is considered one of the most impacted seas on the planet by plastic debris. Here, it is estimated that there is around 43.55 pieces of litter per 100 m2 of seabed, of which 70-80% is plastic of various types.
Unfortunately, the above is not surprising in a country that is a laggard in the EU in terms of recycling, while in many areas of the country it insists on presenting the image of an open landfill even during the tourist season, instead of being a competitive and high-standard tourist destination (of course with a few exceptions from specific municipalities).
Scattered litter is found all year round along urban and rural roadsides, in tourist areas, in highly biodiverse ecosystems, next to archaeological sites and most of it ends up in the sea. Of course, Greece is not the only polluter of the Aegean. A serious problem is also caused by the huge volumes of plastic debris coming from neighbouring countries. However, we are not in a position to raise this issue in bilateral relations with our neighbouring countries, as our contribution to the problem and the inadequacy of management measures on the Greek side has led to the highly problematic situation we see today.
The problem of plastic pollution is growing alarmingly every year. In Greece, despite the ambitious announcements of measures, e.g. to limit the use of plastic bags or single-use plastic, the measures are insufficiently implemented and constitute a drop in the ocean of the problem.
As the huge dispersion of plastic pollutants and their impact on public health and the environment is now an immense problem, we cannot continue to remain blind at either national or European level. It is noteworthy that the biggest problem of plastic dispersion and plastic pollution comes from the food industry and retailing in general and the widespread availability to consumers of products in single-use plastic packaging.
The result of all the above is not only the exorbitant cost of the fines that we all ultimately bear as taxpayers due to non-compliance with EU legislation, nor the scattered litter that disturbs our aesthetics.
Most important of all is the dangerous plastic pollution, which year after year accumulates and swells, entering ecosystems and the food chain, and is the heavy, toxic legacy we will leave to future generations, as the new environmental crisis we are preparing for them.