Welcome to Europe’s Sea of Plastics

Why you should care

The Black Sea is twice as littered with plastic bags and bottles as the Mediterranean Sea.

An ancient treasure, the Black Sea is home to a culturally rich coastline with a stunningly diverse geography. From Bulgaria and Ukraine to Turkey and Georgia, it boasts everything from sandy beaches and romantic oceanside promenades to stunning cliffs and verdant mountains that cascade straight into the sea. 

But on the way to those picturesque beaches, don’t be surprised by what appears to be a poorly maintained landfill. After all, this is Europe’s most polluted sea in terms of floating macro litter. In fact:

The Black Sea is nearly twice as littered with trash as the Mediterranean Sea — despite being less than one-fifth its size.

According to findings published in July by a joint project between the European Union and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the body of water — with an area around 436,400 square kilometers — is home to more than 90 pieces of litter per square kilometer. That’s compared to around 50 items per square kilometer in the Mediterranean Sea, which measures about 2.5 million square kilometers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, around 83 percent of the trash in the Black Sea is from plastics such as bags and bottles. 

How did it get so dirty? A lot of that is down to its unfortunate geographic position: Unlike the sprawling Mediterranean Sea, whose coastline meanders its way into the nooks and crannies of the European continent, the Black Sea is essentially a closed basin whose only outlet — to another sea — is a mere 2 miles wide at most. The Mediterranean, in contrast, boasts an exit, though also narrow, straight into the Atlantic Ocean. Also important is that the Black Sea is the endpoint for at least four major European rivers, including the Danube, the Don, the Dnieper and the Dniester, which carry nearly a dozen countries’ worth of trash. 

 

What’s more, according to Jaroslav Slobodnik, the project’s leader and director of Slovakia-based Environment Institute, the Black Sea’s as-yet poorly understood currents means it’s difficult to track exactly where all the waste comes from.

Now consider the six littoral states of the Black Sea: All but one are former socialist countries with mostly poor environmental track records. That’s bad news when marine ecology depends on an array of factors linked to national governance — also not a strong point for ex-communist states — in each country. Bulgaria and Romania, the only Black Sea EU members, are both among the bloc’s top 10 producers of waste (ranking fourth and sixth, respectively).

Gettyimages 829501166

Greenpeace activists at Asparuhov bridge in the Black sea town of Varna

Source Getty Images

Or take Ukraine, for instance: The country of 45 million is facing a trash processing crisis, thanks in large part to bureaucratic mismanagement, which has fueled makeshift and illegal dumps both inland and along the coast. Ukraine, as well as Russia, another major Black Sea country, both recycle a mere 5 percent of their solid waste. The EU, by contrast, averages a 60 percent recycling rate. That does little to promote a healthy sense of cultural awareness when it comes to littering — a factor that’s still unfortunately widespread in Ukraine, says Viktor Karamushka, head of the ecology department at Ukraine’s National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. “It’s similar to that parable in which a person in a tree is sawing off the very branch they’re sitting on,” he says.

That littering — and the Black Sea’s growing reputation as a trash heap — could harm the region’s burgeoning tourism. The six countries bordering the Black Sea expect a collective 117 million visitors this year, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (although not all of them will head to its beaches). Still, trash pollution could make a significant negative impact, particularly in Georgia, where tourism is responsible for about one third of the economy. 

But not all the news is bad. For one, Karamushka adds, the situation has improved since the 1970s and ’80s, when the environmentally unfriendly heavy industries of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, driven by a clunky command economy, were spewing all manner of pollutants into the Black Sea (whose name, historians say, probably had nothing to do with its color). What’s more, he says, increased international cooperation has also helped, like the EU-organized Black Sea Cross-Border Cooperation Project, which has organized river cleanups, seminars on sustainable tourism, and monitoring projects to analyze the sea for pollutants and determine major risks to human health. Even the recent data collection itself is a victory, as without information, it’s difficult to evaluate — and battle — potential threats to marine ecosystems and public health caused by pollution in the sea. 

For its part, the EU is getting aggressive about fighting plastic waste, aiming to ban single-use plastics by 2021 and setting a 90 percent collection target for plastic bottles by 2029. Taken together, it’s expected to save $25 billion in environmental damages. Now, Slobodnik says, there’s definitely a need to boost coordination among Black Sea littoral states: “That message is already very clear to us now.” The good news, he adds, is that reports like his have refocused attention to the issue.

Still, much of the initiative falls on the priorities of individual governments, raising the question: Will they finally get around to dealing with their trash? Karamushka, for his part, feels confident: “We’ll be able to deal with it,” he says. “It’s a question of time.”

OZYAcumen

Numbers and factoids — fodder for your next cocktail party.