Genova - Every year, eight million tons of plastic end up in the sea: “It’s the equivalent of one million African elephants jumping in the water as one,” says Francesca Garaventa, a researcher at the Genoese headquarters of Ismar, the CNR’s Marine Science Institute. A member of Italy’s IMO delegation (the maritime division of the UN), Ms. Garaventa is part of Ismar’s team of scientists studying pollution caused by plastics.
Considering the shift towards recycling, and all the efforts expended, how is this possible?
“One needs to cast a look beyond the EU, at what’s happening in the rest of the world. According to the latest available data, the volume of untreated plastic waste (neither recycled, nor disposed in landfills: simply abandoned) in 2010 was 26.5 million tonnes, China’s the main culprit, with 8.8 million tonnes, followed by Indonesia and the Philippines. The 23 EU countries that have a seacoast produce less than 300,000 tonnes of untreated waste, a very small part of the total. At current rates, in 2025, projections point to 58 million tonnes of plastic waste, with China and Indonesia doubling their footprint, and a three-fold increase for the Philippines; estimates are that 8 million tonnes of untreated waste will end up in the sea, out of the total 275 million tonnes of plastic rubbish produced annually across 192 coastal countries.”
Hence the plastic soups littering the seafloor, the mega-islands floating in the oceans. “Those occurrences are at the macroscopic-level, for which appropriate countermeasures could be taken. But most of these quantities of plastic break up and become micro-fragments or nano-fragments. When “nano” enters the scientific discourse, it means a size so small it’s able to enter into the tissues of organisms. Much of the plastic that ends up in the sea is already in fragment form: toothpastes with micro granules, detergents, exfoliating creams. Among the components one finds the acronym PET, polyethylene terephthalate: in short, plastic micro-balls. Then there is the degradation of bigger objects: here one needs not look at Asia’s huge dumpsites, it’s enough to think of what’s left behind on the beach after a summer day: inflatable mattresses, broken armrests...”
Any chance to stop or remedy this situation?
“Not yet: it may seem striking, but plastic is a relatively recent phenomenon, it’s been around for just fifty years. While the chemical makeup of other marine pollutants allows or has allowed solutions to be found to counteract or limit them, plastic is non-reagent, and is obviously not biodegradable. Let me remind you that I’m talking about micro-plastic: this means small fragments that scientists are beginning to find in the food chain, ingested by organisms we call “Trojan horses”.”
So, what are you doing over at Ismar?
“In the context of the EU’s EPHEMARE research programme, we analyse how and where micro plastics are accumulating, in which organisms, to understand their “behaviour” based, for example, on different relative weights, currents, and stratifications. One shouldn’t assume that in a marine reserve the concentration of micro plastics is lower than in a port area. We must first learn to observe the phenomenon to understand it, and to make it known. That’s why starting Friday we will take samples and perform analysis on Italian seawater, from Genoa to Ancona, for about two weeks, in conjunction with the Naples Marine Zoo and the Polytechnic University of Marche; we’ll be monitoring both natural areas such as the Tuscan Archipelago, Ventotene, the Tremiti islands, as well as ports such as Livorno, Naples or Bari. We will carry out our project together with a public campaign care of Greenpeace: during our trip we will be guests of the vessel Rainbow Warrior, now docked in Genoa at the outset of a summer campaign to raise awareness of the issue of plastic pollution in the public.”