Friday, 4 May 2018

Ocean Pollution Connecting the World: Plastic Litter - a Pandemic in the Seas

Frithjof Kuepper (Aberdeen, Scotland, UK), Vivian Louizidou (Rhodes, Greece), Rubem Miranda & Teresa Tymon (San Diego, California, USA)

Once more, I am writing these lines on the way back to Aberdeen from one of my trips – a research visit to San Diego State University in California, where I have been collaborating with my long-time friend Carl J. Carrano ever since he moved there in 2003, and where I have been an adjunct professor since 2013. Together with his MSc student Teresa Tymon, we have been exploring halogen and trace metal metabolism in giant kelp (Macrocystis) since 2013[i].

But today, I wanted to write about our activities to combat plastic pollution and to raise public awareness about this problem. We – that is Teresa Tymon and Rubem Miranda in Pacific Beach, San Diego, California, Vivian Louizidou on the Greek island of Rhodes, and myself.

I woke up to this problem in 1995, when I moved to the Station Biologique de Roscoff in Brittany, France as an undergraduate research student, and when it was not yet as present on the public mind as it is now. At that time, I was surveying the population of an abundant brown seaweed, Pylaiella littoralis, for pathogen outbreaks. During my weekly surveys, which consisted of walking in the intertidal and on the shore around Roscoff for about 2 hours at a time, I always took one bucket for my seaweed samples, and another one or a trash bag for all the marine litter that I was picking up. I continued this over my 6 years at Roscoff, until moving to California in November 2001 as a postdoc. During these years, I must have collected several cubic meters of marine litter from the Breton shore! It also struck me during my investigations that tufts of algal filaments often contained small plastic particles, in particular colored fibres of plastic (polypropylene or nylon) ropes. Initially, they looked like unknown filamentous algae to me, but the sad reality that this was an increasing amount of microplastic pollution soon dawned on me.

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That was me collecting seaweeds and marine litter in Roscoff, November 1995

I continued to clean beaches and the seabed (as a diver) in all my residences (and many of the places that I have been visiting) since leaving Roscoff in 2001 – California and Scotland. Most recently, I participated in a beach-cleaning day organized by Rubem in Imperial Beach on March 24 this year – a coastal community between San Diego and the Mexican border city of Tijuana. Besides being a chemistry grad student, Teresa also works as a freelance artist, and part of her artwork is produced from marine litter collected during such events. In total, over 100 volunteers participated in the event. We collected about 150 pounds of trash full of beach litter, all the material collected is clean and storage by RouteUSA, in order to create art and increase awareness a great way to bring attention for the cause.

Whatever was suitable for the urban recycling program of San Diego was taken out, likewise everything suitable for art work. Only about half of the litter collected ended up going to landfill, with the remainder being put to recycling or re-use.

 Carl Carrano in his lab at SDSU

Imperial Beach, San Diego
March 24

Beach cleaning event in Imperial Beach, San Diego, to which Teresa and Rubem invited me to come along. The even was organized by Route USA, San Diego Coastkeeper and sponsored by Sand Cloud, a San Diego-based company which donates 10% of its profits for marine conservation activities.
 Items recovered during a previous beach clean, on exhibit for today's event

 Items recovered during a previous beach clean, on exhibit for today's event

Items recovered during a previous beach clean, on exhibit for today's event. The owner of the driving license has been located and the license will be returned!

 Imperial Beach Fishing Pier, commissioned in 1989

 Volunteers signing up for today's beach clean

 Volunteers signing up for today's beach clean

 Teresa starting her work on a new piece of art from marine litter

 Volunteers signing up for today's beach clean

 Fishermen on the Imperial Beach Fishing Pier

 Imperial Beach Fishing Pier

 Surfers with the Islas Coronado (Mexico) in the background

 Imperial Beach Fishing Pier

 Imperial Beach - life guard jetski

Volunteers cleaning the beach

 Wading birds and surfers against the backdrop of the Coronado Islands (Mexico)

 Wading birds, Imperial Beach

 Wading birds, Imperial Beach

 One of the youngest beach cleaning volunteers today

Wading birds and Coronado Islands (Mexico)

 Courtesy of Starbucks

Pelagophycus porra (Elkhorn kelp), a subtidal kelp typical of deeper waters
(beneath 20 m, i.e. beneath the Macrocystis zone) off southern California

 An unfortunate pelican

 View of the US-Mexican border

 View of the US-Mexican border

 View of the US-Mexican border: the border wall is clearly visible, with the city of Tijuana (Mexico) behind. In this region, the wall has existed for many years - but it has not prevented the extensive trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans across the border.

 View of the US-Mexican border: the border wall is clearly visible, with the city of Tijuana (Mexico) behind. In this region, the wall has existed for many years - but it has not prevented the extensive trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans across the border.

California's Marine Protected Areas are world leading !
The stretch of coast and inland terrain between Imperial Beach and the Mexican border is protected, including by the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge and the Tijuana River Mouth State Marine Conservation Area.
The Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, with the border and the city of Tijuana (Mexico) in the background

The Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, and encroaching "development" in the background. Without legal protection and given the value of coastal real estate in California, there is no doubt that this coastal salt marsh would have been built up already.

Encroaching "development" of Imperial Beach on the western side of the
Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge

 This is what a coastal salt marsh looks like after "development" - Imperial Beach

 Imperial Beach

Loading the trash from the beach clean onto a pickup for transport back to Pacific Beach
and sorting there

On I-5, on the way back to Pacific Beach  

BBQ at Adam's house in Pacific Beach prior to sorting the trash from the beach clean

 The crew (minus Frithjof) with the trash collected from the beach 

Sorting the trash from today's beach cleaning event

Happy End: this lizard had been accidentally collected from the beach in a pile of trash! Here we are releasing it in a suitable habitat...

We released the lizard in the vegetated strip on the left. Pacific Beach, San Diego

Farewell dinner in Pacific Beach

...and this was Teresa's farewell present for me! 
Made from recycled materials, it will decorate my home in Scotland.

On this occasion, I want to write some thoughts about a rather novel application for plastic waste – including mixed plastic waste from beach clean-ups with a certain fraction of sand or even tar (which is common on many beaches). The latter can barely be recycled easily, unless considerable effort is made to wash it. I recently came across a very interesting concept from the Netherlands which I believe is worth consideration for many coastal areas, but also the islands of the world:

Using waste plastic for road surfacing is more durable than tar (which obviously needs to be imported at a cost)! In remoter parts of India, this has become a low-tech, low-cost solution for surfacing roads – and eliminating the plastic waste problem at the same time. There is obviously a huge need for road surfacing in the world over the foreseeable future - which could swallow many years’ worth of recycled plastic. It would also reduce or eliminate any need for transporting exporting collected plastic waste. Also particularly attractive is that plastic containing sand particles collected from beaches (such as discarded fishing gear) is perfectly suitable for this purpose – so much better than dumping this in landfill.

Our objective with the beach clean-up is to promote awareness, inform the community about the epidemic problem of marine litter, and create art with the material we collected once clean. We choose Imperial Beach because this is considered the most polluted beach in San Diego – besides plastic waste, traces of hepatitis and other pathogens have been found in the water.
Since the United Nations have called for a resolution and made a primary objective to fight against ocean pollution, we have noted a trend on this matter, with the media and organizations turning more attention to it. Here in California a law against plastic bags was adopted recently, stipulating that consumes now have to buy their plastic bags in supermarkets. Also, new regulations are being proposed against plastic straws -  businesses will have to pay a fine up to U$1,000 if they offer plastic straws to the consumer (unless requested).
Our project uses art as a form to express the problem and the quantity of trash is found in the oceans. We believe we can create a bigger impact in the society if we find a way to give value to something that loses value if discarded inappropriately. That’s why we also engage in ocean education in schools to teach the new generations about consumption, waste, in order to avoid recyclable materials ending up in landfills or, worse, in the ocean.

I have been working as a part time artist for about two years now and was thrilled when Rubem came to me with his plans for Route USA, a non-profit organization that focuses on beach clean-ups, education, and turning trash into artwork.  From the onset of my art career I have been dedicated to using recycled materials whenever possible.  Many of my paintings are done on canvases and wood that I find in the alleys of San Diego, so using trash collected from beaches in my artwork is an exciting challenge for me that I am delighted to take on.  I aim to create pieces that incorporate beach debris into my own painting style, sometimes without it being obvious that it is even trash.  By creating sellable artwork from materials that would otherwise be waste, I hope to raise awareness about the throw-away culture that we live in and encourage others to be more conscious of the items they use and discard in their everyday life.  

 One of Teresa's masterpieces, painted on recycled wood

 One of Teresa's masterpieces, painted on recycled wood and using other recycled materials

 One of Teresa's masterpieces, using recycled materials from cleaning beaches in California

 One of Teresa's masterpieces, using recycled materials from cleaning beaches in California

One of Teresa's masterpieces, using recycled materials from cleaning beaches in California

There is a Greek song saying “We are two, we are three, we are one thousand three…” It comes to my mind every time I am at one of the two recycling boxes of Rhodes. It is a 20 sqm cube where people can recycle plastic bottles, metal cans and glass bottles and get 0.03 euro for each and either donate it for charity or use it as credit at a supermarket “AB Vasilopoulos”. These boxes are my dream and my nightmare at the same time. 

Many times I load my car with huge bags full of recyclable materials staff from our small family hotel “Vivian Studios” and when I arrive, the recycling boxes are either full or out of order, or even worse, someone is already filling them up so I have to try again in a couple of hours (or days). There is one – yes only one – guy who goes 3-4 times a day to empty the boxes or unblock the ones that people don’t know how to use. One is none. And 2 boxes are not enough for the whole of the island with 120.000 permanent citizens and 2.5 million tourists. 

However, in March, our Municipality received 500 “Blue Bins” for all the neighbourhoods, villages and some hotels of the island. Blue bins are for any recyclable material, plastic, glass paper, metal etc. The sorting centre started operating since then and day by day many of the citizens now know where to dispose their recyclable products. In my opinion though, I strongly believe that the boxes that give you a bit of money back would be the best motive for all citizens to use it more. Especially in a still recovering Greek economy. 

A few years ago, if you were talking about environmental protection and recycling you were risking to be characterized as “graphic”, “crazy ecologist” or a “hippie”… Thank God this belongs to the past! The two became three and now we are more than one thousand three! People are thirsty for protecting the environment, thirsty for recycling and thirsty to reduce the use of plastic more than everything! This is how a new campaign started. The “Refill Greece” project, where anyone can turn his house or cafeteria or hotel or anything into a water refill station. Therefore, we can use the same water bottle, with the option to refill it – for free! - , instead of buying a new plastic one. The cool thing is that you can download the app and you can see all the refill stations near you! 


For more info you can check out:

At one of the municipal recycling stations in Rhodes, Greece 

Recycling station at Vivian Studios, Ialysos, Rhodes
 Vivian with collected trash after cleaning a beach in Rhodes

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