By Alexia Evripidou
In the wake of endless natural disasters, can we still keep our heads buried in the sand over pollution and climate change issues? And even if we do lift our heads momentarily will we feel too overwhelmed to take action?
“There’s only so much we can ignore, but there’s also only so much we can take because it’s not only climate change and environmental issues but also the refugee crisis, Isis; things seem to be happening everywhere constantly. It’s no wonder people want to look away,” acknowledges Hettie Geenen, captain of Greenpeace’s iconic Rainbow Warrior ship.
But is this understanding view undeservedly kind in the face of, for example, Cyprus’ plastic crisis? After all, it’s an issue we can all help resolve.
Scientists have been telling us for years about animals around the world suffocating from plastic bags in our seas, about marine life ingesting residual microplastics that ultimately travel up the food chain into our own anatomies and that of our children. And still, the island’s beaches are brimming with litter left by beachgoers everywhere. Sadly, this is not new news.
Despite being officially off-duty and docked for a month’s maintenance work in Limassol’s port, Greenpeace’s extraordinary Rainbow Warrior and her 16-strong international crew, couldn’t help doing what they do best – campaigning – this time in an unofficial capacity to help Cyprus tackle its own growing plastic pollution crisis.
This is not common practice. Usually, their projects are meticulously organised, researched and prepared by one of Greenpeace’s multiple international offices, none of which are based here.
“We took an initiative, it was an opportunity to get to know the country and the people; build bridges and raise awareness in environmental issues, particularly plastic pollution,” explained Captain Geenen.
What she saw here saddened her.
On their primary collaboration with Friends of the Earth Cyprus (FoECy), an impromptu beach clean collected over 90 bin bags of litter on Lady’s Mile beach, Limassol.
“There was so much rubbish, oh my god! It was full of cans, plastic bottles, cigarette butts whose filters take many years to disintegrate and strips of single-use plastic. In my experience, there are countries which have less plastic pollution. There’s a lot of garbage lying around here and it’s unbearable to be honest,” said Geenen who has been with Greenpeace since 1999.
Fortunately, Greenpeace, one of the world’s largest and best-known international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), has been aware of the problem for several years and made a big push with the plastic campaign last year. Also in 2016 #breakfreefromplastic evolved a global movement which envisions a future plastic pollution free. It launched an initiative demanding massive reductions in single-use plastics and a push for lasting solutions to the plastic pollution crisis; over 900 NGOs have since joined, including FoECy.
But how’s plastic a problem?
According to FoECy, a disposable plastic bag takes between 100-500 years to decompose, over 100,000 mammals are killed from plastic annually, 86 per cent turtles are ingesting and being entangled in litter. These are frightening statistics.
According to a BBC report this month on the effects of marine plastic pollution on seabirds, researchers and scientists from North Highland College UHI’s Environmental Research Institute in Thurso, Scotland discovered that out of the 34 species of seabirds examined, 74 per cent of them had ingested plastic.
The damage can be found in deep sea creatures such as sea stars too. “Solutions to plastic pollution in the oceans require concerted action at its source on land, 80 per cent of marine litter is thought to come from the land, especially by users and producers,” Dr Alex Bond RSPB senior conservation scientist told the BBC.
Concerted action is where NGOs step in.
Plastic pollution wasn’t always high on Greenpeace’s agenda explains Captain Geenen. Overall, Greenpeace’s main focus is climate change “but everything is interlinked,” and Rainbow Warrior’s present project is plastic pollution.
“We’ve just left Bulgaria, finishing a tour here in the Mediterranean visiting Italy, Croatia, Spain, France and Greece. We’ll continue the campaign to Taiwan and Hong Kong.”
For this project, the ship which has sailed around the world facing a multitude of dangers and arrests will be used as a tool to build awareness; docking in different countries meeting people, holding press conferences, offering workshops, training, beach cleanings and open boat days where people can hop on and learn all about Greenpeace, its projects and the realities of plastic pollution.
One of their main objectives is to educate people on single-use plastics – water bottles, coffee cups, straws etc – which have proven to be one of the worse culprits according to FoECy’s findings on 16 September audit.
“The source of the garbage on the beach is people: it’s your choice, your decision, it’s up to you to keep your beaches and city clean; it’s about personal responsibility,” said Marina Evriviadou Communication Officer of FoECy. “It’s also about ‘corporate responsibility’, for companies to think about what happens with their product packaging, the responsibility shouldn’t just end on the shelf, it should go all the way of the life cycle of their product.”
With seeds of plastic awareness now spreading around the island, Rainbow Warrior must continue her campaign. The ship is the third version of the Rainbow Warrior and the first purpose-built for Greenpeace, she’s apparently better equipped than any Greenpeace ship before.
Her adventures began in the Netherlands 2011, where she journeyed on to the Amazon campaigning against deforestation in 2012, perused the Indian Ocean and New Zealand 2013 for a fishery campaign and returned again to Australia in 2015 for rescue work when typhoon Pam hit.
The original Rainbow Warrior which helped end nuclear testing in the Pacific was bombed in 1985 by the French Secret Service and the second worked tirelessly for 22 years.
“Of course you can see us as a troublemaker and some people don’t like us. If you lead a ‘good life’, you don’t want anyone reminding you of things that are a problem, it’s like your mother standing over you and telling you to clean up after yourself. Although you know she’s right you don’t want to see it,” said Geenen.
As crew, Geenen acknowledges the privilege of being taken on helicopters and seeing for themselves the real damage.
“We go all around the world. We bear witness and then inform the world. That’s what we do.”
One of the biggest changes Captain Geenen has personally experienced was approximately 10 years ago in Greenland. “We were taking Nasa scientists by helicopter to see how far the glacier had retreated due to climate change. I’d noticed that some of the people were very upset because they were looking down at a river and according to their coordinates, a glacier should have been there. We carried on flying and flying and eventually we saw the glacier,” she said.
“When you’re in the helicopter, you can really see the changes. It’s these things that I want to show the world. It’s the same thing here with all the plastic on the beach. People just leave all this behind, and I think, how is this possible?”
Geenen emphasised that plastic pollution is a legitimate global problem but she’s a firm advocate in it never being too late.
“If we start now by doing little things, changes can happen. Start by picking up your rubbish at the beach, little initiatives bring others, Greenpeace itself started small.”