While the focus on plastic-flooded oceans is primarily aimed at Asia and Africa, scientists encourage to realize the environmental issues on our seaside as well. The amount of rubbish found in the coastal zone of Lithuania is 7 times higher than the European norm, which defines the good condition of the coastline. The situation on the Latvian coast is even more acute, and the upward trend in pollution observed in recent years does not spark optimism.
The need – a common monitoring system
“In order to assess the situation objectively, the context is also important. Compared to other continents, our coastline is in a good state, but from a European perspective, our coastal environment is comparatively not great,” – said Dr. Arūnas Balčiūnas, a researcher at the Marine Research Institute, Klaipeda University (KU).
In the 100-meter stretch of the Baltic Sea coast, an average of 146 pieces of various trash is detected in Lithuania, while the European target would not exceed 20 pieces. In Latvia, the mentioned indicator reaches as much as 245 pieces.
Evaluating the lack of a common marine waste monitoring system in Lithuania and neighboring Latvia, researchers began to look for solutions together earlier this year using the Interreg V-A Latvia-Lithuania Programme 2014-2020 project “ESMIC” (LLI-525 Estimation, monitoring and reduction of plastic pollutants in the Latvian-Lithuanian coastal area via innovative tools and awareness). The project will run until October 2022. European Regional Development Fund co-funding is 382 100 EUR.
Together with KU, Klaipėda Science and Technology Park, Latvian Institute of Aquatic Ecology at Daugavpils University, Foundation for Environmental Education Latvia also got involved in the activities.
Research on multiple “fronts”
The focus of the “ESMIC” project is on plastics, which are trapped by organic sediments thrown ashore, so scientists are set to find solutions in the future to remove algae and with it - some of the trash from the coast.
While collecting samples of sand and algae on the beaches of Klaipėda, Klaipėda district, and Palanga municipalities, scientists from Klaipėda worked all summer to find out what constitutes sediment on the beaches and how much marine litter accumulates in them. More objective data was obtained by the use of drones and satellite information.
Observations on the coast of their country were also carried out by project partners from Latvia, who are carrying out an ongoing “My Sea” campaign, during which garbage is collected at the seaside and its types are analyzed. In 10 years, Latvians have carried out 395 outbound research expeditions, in which about 83 000 pieces of various trash were collected.
This year, Latvians collected about 11 000 pieces of trash at the seaside. Of particular concern to the neighboring country is the fact that this number has risen by 15% in the last 4 years, although coastal municipalities are putting a lot of effort into developing a waste management system and educating the public. This year, an average of 266 pieces of trash were found in the 100-meter stretch of the Latvian coast, and up to 59 percent of the total amount of found objects consists of plastic waste. Plastic is found during each expedition – it is usually fragments of various objects, plastic bags.
Cigarette butts are also a significant part of the top 10 most common coastal rubbish found on the Latvian coastline. Lithuania is no exception. Researchers note that a significant part of the public is still unaware that there is plastic in cigarettes. Another problem is that such trash contains toxic substances that are released into the sand or water.
Monitors plastic migration
“Garbage knows no borders – it can easily travel from one country to another if tossed away irresponsibly. This is especially evident when you find traces of party supplies on the seashore – balloons released into the sky during celebrations very quickly find themselves in the water and sand. The image of trash isn't the only thing raising concerns – trash also poses various threats to both animals and humans,” – said dr. A. Balčiūnas.
According to the scientist, even the renovation of houses, when construction sites are not properly protected, becomes one of the sources of pollution – particles of insulating materials are found at the seaside. During decomposition processes, larger plastic objects are transformed into microplastics. There are no effective ways to eliminate them from the environment at this time. Therefore, the partners of the “ESMIC” project partners emphasize the importance of preventive measures, raising public awareness, generating more sustainable business models and supporting such initiatives.
Focus on the EU directive
Researchers do not close their insights in laboratories and seek to promote intersectoral dialogue. The partners of the “ESMIC” project have already initiated two thematic events with the participation of municipalities, beach care, and public health services, plastics producers, catering companies, and other organizations.
The meeting, which took place in October, focused on the results of research conducted by researchers in the summer, and the forum “Single-use plastics in Lithuanian and Latvian coastal areas: challenges and solutions” organized on 3 December invited for a more extensive discussion with over 50 organizations from Lithuania and Latvia participating.
The percentage of plastic waste entering the oceans from Europe according to 2019 data reached 0,6%. However, the Old Continent is aiming to set an example and is taking strong action to manage the situation. The EU directive on reducing the environmental impact of certain plastic products, which entered into force on 3 July 2021, is aiming to help replace plastic cups and other disposable tableware, straws, and cotton ear swabs with more sustainable alternatives. Saulė Deveikytė, a representative of the Waste Policy Group of the Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Lithuania, who presented the most important aspects of the directive during the forum, pointed out that from 2023, the plastics and tobacco industries will have to make a significant financial contribution, together with municipalities, to waste management and public education. Strict requirements will change technological processes – by 2030, at least 30% of recycled plastic will have to be used in the production of plastic beverage bottles.
According to Kaunas University of Technology professor dr. Žaneta Stasiškienė, in 2050, about two-thirds of the world's population will be concentrated in coastal megacities. Economic growth is integrally linked to rising consumption, including disposable plastics, that is why these cities will be “hot spots” where waste management will be a major challenge.
Large and small initiatives
Lithuania is one of the few countries and one of the first in the EU to introduce a deposit system for recyclable beverage containers, the positive changes in reducing the amount of unmanaged waste are very obvious. Positive signs are also being seen in other areas where more sustainable consumption patterns are being integrated.
Valdonė Daugėlaitė-Šuškevičė, a founder of the “Cup Cup” initiative, shared her story at the forum in Klaipėda, presenting the solution to public catering establishments, festivals, and other events that aim to move towards the reduction of single-use plastic pollution. The initiative was born out of observed threatening numbers – according to V. Daugėlaitė-Šuškevičė, more than 40 million disposable coffee cups in Lithuania are being thrown out. An alternative to disposable plastic cups is the paper cup. However, the impression of the sustainability of such packaging is misleading, as its production technology also requires plastic. So only 1 percent of paper cups are recyclable.
The founder of the “Cup Cup” initiative did not hide the fact that the first year trying to convince potential customers was not easy, but now event and catering organizers are slowly reaching the breaking point – reusable mugs and cups are becoming fashionable and a flexible system allows customers to choose the optimal service model. According to “Cup Cup”, their proposed solution helped to avoid 1 077 kg of plastic waste during festivals this summer, because fewer disposable containers of beverages made from it were used by festival participants.
Giedrius Bučas, the founder of the social initiative “Kūrybos kampas 360°”, shared with the participants of the forum the results of a march, which was organized this summer, during which garbage was collected. The project covered all of Lithuania, and while traveling through the Curonian Spit, which is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, about 75kg of garbage was collected. “Live fast – consume fast. The culture of eating has changed dramatically – food can be bought on almost every corner, and after eating, of course, we would like to throw away those packages without worry. There is dissatisfaction if such conditions do not exist” – G. Bučas noted. According to him, when discussing the mechanisms for regulating the use of plastics, the promotion of citizens' awareness is an important part of waste management and sorting system improvement. “The change we all hope to see begins first with ourselves and our environment," – G. Bučas is certain.
Dr. Arūnas Balčiūnas
Marine Research Institute of Klaipeda University
This article has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union (EU). Klaipeda Science and Technology Park is responsible for the content of the article. Under no circumstances can it be considered to reflect the views of the EU.