SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
The European Union wants to ban single-use plastics, like straws and plastic bags, by 2021. They often end up in the sea, especially in Greece, which has the longest coastline in the EU. Joanna Kakissis reports.
UNIDENTIFIED DIVERS: (Speaking Greek).
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: This is what it sounds like when divers are trying to heave a big bag of trash out of the sea. They've got a huge tire, a shopping cart and lots of plastic. These 12 divers have volunteered to clean the seabed off the Greek island of Poros. George Sarelakos leads the expedition.
GEORGE SARELAKOS: You know, it makes me upset seeing that the seabed includes everything. There's everything inside there. Like, the whole seabed is covered by litter. Plastics are everywhere.
KAKISSIS: The World Economic Forum warned earlier this year that there will be more plastic than fish in the world's seas in about 30 years' time. The World Wide Fund for Nature, known as the WWF, estimates that 95 percent of the waste in the Mediterranean Sea and on its beaches is plastic.
ACHILLEAS PLITHARAS: It makes you feel very sad and, at the same time, very angry.
KAKISSIS: Achilleas Plitharas is a policy campaigner in the WWF's Greece office in Athens.
PLITHARAS: The plastics debate has the same, more or less, conflicts and barriers with the climate change debate. We all know how bad the things are. But at the same time, we haven't found a common solution, and we didn't discover yet a common path to work on.
KAKISSIS: Greeks, he says, are addicted to plastic. The average Greek uses about 300 plastic bags a year. By comparison, a Finn uses just four.
PLITHARAS: Only 10 to 12 percent of the plastics that comes into the Greek market are currently recycled.
KAKISSIS: Is that very low compared to others?
PLITHARAS: It's one of the lowest level in the European Union.
KAKISSIS: So I see evidence of this in my own neighborhood. I mean, the dumpster and the recycling bin just around the corner have pretty much the same stuff inside. I'm just having a peek here. In the garbage dumpster, I see plastic bottles. I see plastic bags. Oh, here's some straws.
A lot of that ends up in the landfill. But if plastics and other recyclables happen to be in the right bin, the private waste management company WATT collects and sells it. Kostas Verganelakis manages the company.
KOSTAS VERGANELAKIS: We receive approximately 250 tons on a daily basis. So it's like one mountain of waste that comes here on a daily basis. If our plant was not here, then all this waste could go directly to the landfill.
KAKISSIS: Or in the sea if you're on a Greek island.
Poros Island is in the Saronic Gulf, which, recent studies show, is full of plastic. It washes up on beaches in a country that lives off tourism. Endangered sea turtles choke on it. George Sarelakos, the diver, sees fish eat it.
SARELAKOS: You know, when we dive, we see parts - plastic bags almost turn into microplastics floating around and fishes eating this microplastic. Whatever we throw into the sea, we get it back, and we get it back to our stomachs.
KAKISSIS: The divers lay out more trash on the pier - cans, glasses, engines and more plastic.
NIKOLETTA KARADIMA: (Speaking Greek).
KAKISSIS: Eighty-four-year-old Nikoletta Karadima walks by and gasps at the sight.
KARADIMA: (Speaking Greek).
KAKISSIS: "We're throwing all that in there?" she says. "That's our sea. I swim in that sea." For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis on Poros, Greece.
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