(5 Apr 2018) Dressed in black and preparing his gear with loud zips-and-clicks, George Sarelakos looks more like he's about to storm a building than take part in a nature campaign.
Joined by four other volunteer divers, he has a challenging mission: clear plastic waste from the sea floor that's suffocating Greece's marine life.
In heavy rain, they struggle to clamber on and off rocks along a stretch of coastline south of Athens favored by daytrippers looking for a nice place to swim within driving distance.
In January, the European Union launched a major campaign to reduce plastic waste across its 28 member states.
Greece starts 12-year programme with a major set of disadvantages: An alarming rate of single-use plastic consumption, a waste management system largely neglected during a decade-long financial crisis, and the longest coastline in the EU - nearly double the length of India.
Within an hour of their dive, Sarelakos and his rubber-suited companions bring up large clumps of rubbish, mostly old tires tied into bundles with rope. A curious dolphin inspects their work before darting off to a nearby fish farm.
In a 2015 study, researchers trawled five coastal areas in the eastern Mediterranean and found that 60 percent of the marine litter detected was in the Saronic Gulf bordering greater Athens. And 95 percent of that rubbish was plastic, much of it single-use items like supermarket carrier bags and drinks bottles.
The EU plans to make all plastic packaging on the market recyclable by 2030, and wants member states to crack down in single-use plastic, with consumers using no more than 40 lightweight plastic bags annually by 2025.
A few countries have already zoomed past that target: Finns on average use just four plastic bags a year. But for Greeks _ now accustomed to sipping coffee out of plastic cups using plastic straws and with kiosk beverage coolers within easy reach over every city dweller _ it's become part of the lifestyle. They use 296 bags per year, according to the EU Commission, while local surveys suggest the number is even higher.
Greek stores began charging for plastic bags on Jan. 1 _ a relatively small step for a country still heavily reliant on coal-fired power plants and which is regularly fined for its large number of unregulated rubbish dumps.
Only 16 percent of rubbish is recycled here, compared to the EU's average of 44 percent. Nearly everything else ends up buried in dumps.
At Fyli, the country's largest landfill on the outskirts of the capital, earthmovers constantly reshape mountains of rubbish in a quarried hillside squeezing out a dark liquid called leachate to leave enormous stacks of brown-coated plastic.
Garbage trucks are coordinated by loudspeaker, followed by packs of seagulls ready to swoop on the new rubbish before it gets crushed.
The site's environmental officer, Ioanna Kapsimali, also takes part as a volunteer diver in Athens cleanups. She says it's impossible to contain all the plastic at the landfill.
Pieces of rubbish, including bottle caps and cigarette lighters, end up in the stomachs of birds and marine creatures, tangled in nests, or on the feet of seaside animals.
A few lucky animals end up at Maria Ganoti's Athens clinic to be saved. The director of a local charity, the Greek Wildlife Care Association, or Anima, treats an injured seagull, and describes the danger of animals eating plastic over the loud squawk of other injured birds.
According to campaigners, Greeks are largely unaware of their country's plastic problem because bathing water quality remains high in most parts of the country and most of the pollution is not visible.
But visit a shoreline not used by bathers and the picture can quickly change.
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