THE BALTIC CHALLENGE
The Baltic Sea is one of the planet’s most significant bodies of brackish water. Having been formed just 10,000-15,000 years ago from glacial erosion, the Baltic is the youngest sea on our planet. It contains a unique mixture of saltwater from the North-East Atlantic and fresh water from the surrounding rivers and streams that run through the 14 different countries in the catchment.
This sensitive marine ecosystem with unique fauna and flora has seen severe degradation over the past 100 years. Besides being subjected to the increasing effects of climate change, many other local pressures are also affecting the Baltic Sea. The list is quite extensive: unsustainable fishing (which leads to the depletion of stocks and species); high levels of contaminants and litter – mainly plastic waste; or even the excessive development of harmful algae blooms, which can considerably reduce the levels of oxygen in the sea, posing a menace to biodiversity.
Eighty-five million people live within the drainage basin of the Baltic Sea, which is four times as large as the sea itself. Most live on the southern shores and approximately half of the population live in Poland. With the aim of promoting a more effective multilateral management of the Baltic, the United Nations Global Compact Poland, together with the Clean Poland Association, held a conference that counted with Biedronka as one of the main sponsors of the event, being a natural consequence of a long-time cooperation with the association. Among the speakers in the panel “Will human activity lead to the desertification of the Baltic Sea?” was the marine litter and microplastic researcher João Frias, who is based at the Marine and Freshwater Research Centre of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (Ireland).
Currently working on microplastics projects that help identify baselines, impacts and policies in Europe, João Frias shared examples of good practices that could be replicated in Poland in exploratory research both from his previous experiences in mainland Portugal (his country of origin) and the Azores archipelago and his most recent studies on coastal embayment in the North-East Atlantic Ocean. Over the last four years, João Frias and his team have been assessing microplastic levels in the west of Ireland: “In surface waters, they are relatively small compared to the Mediterranean.
We found 1.5 microplastics per cubic metre. The majority of what we collected were fibres from clothing”. Frias’ research also aims at tackling this problem using an ecosystem-based holistic approach, which focuses on finding traces of microplastics in the water, the sediment and in wild or commercial marine species, such as periwinkles or prawns. The main goal “is to assess the safety levels for human consumption.”
Another primary threat, clearly resulting from the global coronavirus pandemic, is personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks, face coverings and gloves found in beach clean-ups worldwide. João Frias mentioned a recent report from Ocean Conservancy called “Pandemic Pollution – the rising tide of plastic PPE” and highlighted that “out of 115 countries participating, 70 found personal protective equipment”. Out of these 70 countries, “94% of the participants found this new litter threat on the beaches, with 40% reporting more than five items collected.”
The “Clean Baltic” conference was part of a two-day event promoted by the Clean Poland Association in partnership with Biedronka, which included a beach clean-up campaign. Two thousand volunteers joined this unprecedented initiative that took place on the beaches and coastal lanes of the Hel peninsula, Tricity, Rewa and Puck. Almost two tonnes of rubbish were collected, namely thousands of plastic bottles and bottle caps, cans, plastic packaging, broken electronics and garments. Also organised by the Clean Poland Association is the “Clean the Tatras” project, which aims at promoting ecological attitudes and preserving the biodiversity of the highest Polish Mountain range. In 2021 we celebrated the 10th clean-up initiative, which was also supported by the food retail market leader – our Biedronka.