Litter - Old issue, New chapter (Portugal)

YRE Competition 2017
Litter Less Campaign
19-21 years

How informed are you about the impact of your garbage? Does it remain only on land? Does it travel the seas to the other side of the globe? In order to find out how well informed people are, in March we held a series of interviews about marine pollution.

Ever since the last century we have struggled with the amount of garbage we produce, but only in the last decade have we really cared about the impact we have on the environment, with the growing accumulation of waste that has reached alarming proportions! One of the most focal points has been pollution of the marine environment and it is in this perspective that several people were interviewed in order to ascertain how informed they are about the influence that man has on the environment. Among them, Maria da Conceição Lopes, an activist from Quercus, who provided a more in-depth look at the seriousness of this problem, stands out.

The questions posed ranged from the basic concept of "marine litter" to the behaviours common citizens may or may not have, such as throwing trash to the ground. The interviewees were chosen to reflect the various sectors of our society, from workers to students and, within these, to young people with an interest in the environment, such as scouts.

After analysing the obtained answers, the amount of insight that each of the interviewees presented seemed more or less the same. However, when confronting other respondents' responses with those of the Quercus activist, we realized that most are unaware of the impacts they cause on a global scale, focusing heavily on local issues.

"People are very poorly informed about the consequences of their daily acts and activities", says the activist, explaining how the irresponsible consumption and disinterest of a large part of the population help increase the rampant accumulation of garbage. This lack of information can be seen because when asked what the impact of marine litter is on the environment and society all interviewees responded with the more "common" problems, such as the death of animals and the accumulation of litter on the beaches, but only a few addressed the fact that Man could be directly affected. "It impacts us directly because this waste enters the food chain", explains the activist.

Another discrepancy in the level of awareness of our interviewees was found when asked about solid and liquid materials that can contaminate the marine environment. "It's a world!", says Maria da Conceição Lopes. Other respondents always refer to plastic, coming from packaging, as the main contaminant. However, in this list we find other materials such as fishing rods, fishing nets, latex, insulating material, glass, etc ... From straws to domestic appliances, several are the items found in coastal areas or drifting in the sea, agglomerating in the so-called plastic islands. But this is a small section of the list, where the visible contaminants are pointed out, because "pollution that is not seen is the most problematic" the activist explains.

One example of this type of pollution is microplastics - plastic in its most fragmented state. It is an issue that has been aggravated over the years. Aiming for a more "environmentally friendly" approach, companies began to mass produce these plastics thought to be biodegradable, when in fact they were oxi-degradable, that is, degraded by the continuous exposure to air. With the false mass biodegradation of these plastics, the amount of microplastics increased exponentially. Thus, even if the rivers and seas are cleared of all visible pollution, they remain contaminated on a microscopic scale.

When asked about human actions which harm the environment, there is consensus on the lack of interest, that is, the lack of an "environmental conscience", as Miguel Ines, one of the interviewees, answered. But again, the answers are very much about the local situation. "This is not a local problem!" The activist recalls, explaining that the problem lies not only in large cities. In fact, it is in developing countries that we find a good part of this problem, because information in these places is not half of what we receive daily in developed countries. And the problem worsens when we explore this issue, "in addition to not being sensitized, they do not have the means to start doing so", says Maria da Conceição Lopes.

So how do we solve a problem this big?

This is the question that hangs over our heads when we realize the monster that the pollution of the marine environment has become. However, the solutions may be simpler than you think! "It is urgent to create legislation and fines", says the activist, explaining "people do better if they are penalized than if they are sensitized." In addition to these policy issues, there are a number of actions we can all take to help reduce waste. "Give a proper destination to your waste"suggests Maria da Conceição Lopes, and this is a suggestion which is also present in all the respondents' answers. Another proposition, coming from a group of scouts, is choosing to buy products with less packaging.

One more measure, suggested by Maria da Conceição, is to make more awareness campaigns and calling out to more participant. As a last suggestion, this time aimed at youngsters, is the promotion of environmental programs, such as the well-known “Maré Viva” that should be open to a greater number of interested parties.

As you can see, the “Litter problem” people are talking about nowadays, is no longer “candy wrap left on the sidewalk”, it has evolved in an uncontrolled way and spread all over the globe, invading the oceans and, therefore, bringing higher health risks to all of us. However, although it is a problem of monstrous proportions, a small act (such as putting candy wrap in the appropriate container or not leaving litter on the beach) can be a major contribution to the beginning of its eradication.

Cigarette beads collected during the Maré Viva program exposed at the Centro de Interpretação Ambiental da Pedra do Sal.

Cigarette beads collected during the Maré Viva program exposed at the Centro de Interpretação Ambiental da Pedra do Sal.

Written by students from Portugal.