By João Frias.
The Associação Portuguesa de Lixo Marinho (APLM) is a Portuguese non-profit non-governmental organisation whose mission is to reduce the impacts of litter in marine, coastal and estuarine ecosystems, while at the same time promoting outreach, awareness and co-responsibility activities based on values of sustainable consumption, citizenship, solidarity and environmental protection, using a multi-stakeholder approach.
And more than that, it is my master thesis dream made real.
Growing up in Portugal I always had a special relationship with the sea, both fascinating and frightful at the same time. I had the good fortune to visit the beach often and it was always a healing place filled with family memories, special moments with friends. While growing up, I witnessed that my local beach was progressively becoming polluted with cigarette filters, metal cans, processed wood, plastic bottles, bags and countless plastic fragments. Some items, like toys or flip-flop shoes, were forgotten, others like bottles, bags and cans were mostly left behind either deliberately or unintentionally. I saw many times people tossing away items, without realising that on our planet there is no “away”. My training as an environmental engineer allowed me to have enough knowledge to understand that linear consumption systems do not work in a finite resource planet. Many times, during the period I was in need of healing, I would visit the beach and would feel bad to see it getting more and more polluted. I remember thinking, “how can I come here to heal myself and witness the accumulation of litter and debris?”.
In 2008 I started working on the topic of marine litter as a master student and realised that there was some scarce information about plastic pollution in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and there was a big gap from that period until the 2000’s. I dedicated two years investigating more about marine anthropogenic litter, collecting and processing samples from two beaches. It was an emotional process, and when I finished my master’s degree, I was more aware of the impacts of marine debris. I decided that this was something that I wanted to pursue as a career and I decided to further develop research abilities in order to provide data for my country. That was when I started my PhD on the impacts of microplastics and started thinking of what I had written on my final chapter of my master thesis: the creation of an NGO that would serve as a bridge between all the other NGO’s conducting beach clean-ups and societal outreach and awareness on marine litter. The more I investigated into this, I realised that such NGO did not exist in my country. After a lot of consideration, I decided to approach my supervisor with this issue. She listened carefully and after some considerations, she proposed me to start the process to create this multi-stakeholder platform based on co-responsibility. I always had quite a strong admiration for my supervisor Paula Sobral (FCT-UNL) and the fact that she thought that my crazy idea was valuable made me believe that it would be possible to create such platform. In my mind, my local beach was no longer the only beach to protect, I wanted to influence positive behavioural change throughout the country.
And so, in November, 25th 2013, in the middle of my PhD, the Portuguese Marine Litter Association (APLM) was born to promote ocean literacy, to provide data and detailed information about marine litter in Portugal via education or lobbying activities, but more importantly to act as a bridge that would connect the different organisations and civic movements that are absolutely relevant for the well-being of the Portuguese coastal area. Most of these organisations have phenomenal outreach and awareness programmes or clean-ups campaigns for more than 20 years, but were not or in some cases are not recognised nationally.
Despite the limited funding, in 6 years of activities, we have organised forums, travelled the country, engaged with thousands of stakeholders from fisherman and surfers to the plastic industry and national politicians. With each stakeholder, we try to build trust and show our work. I believe that if you surround yourself with good and trustworthy people, and if you all work together towards the same goal, then great things will be achieved.
We have been invited for public debates in the television or been consulted to provide management solutions to the problem of marine anthropogenic litter. We also have been engaging with people on a regular basis on our beach clean-up activities.
The nicknames provided to us, “Plasticman” or “Queen of Trash” are something that we absolutely treasure.
At the moment we have several national outreach and awareness campaigns in mainland Portugal, as for instance “Fishing for a Sea without Litter”, where we provide bins to fisherman for them to deposit marine litter they might collect during fishing activities. This will reduce the amount of derelict fishing gear and other items at sea that could potentially cause damage to vessels. This voluntary scheme is a project run in close collaboration with port authorities (Docapesca). We have started collaborating with Ocean Conservancy, and we organise the International Coastal Cleanup event every year for the last 3 years with their support.
We have an active education programme, where we go to schools and universities to give lectures about the impacts of marine litter in coastal areas, based on research conducted in Portugal (mainland and islands). We have collaborated with visual artist Liina Klauss to produce art pieces that are visually impacting and convey messages easier, while we are attending national outreach events.
As part of our holistic approach, we have also started to engage with the international community via the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries. So far, we have conducted outreach and awareness education programmes in East-Timor (Asia) and in São Tomé and Principe (Africa), where the main focus of our activities is to build capacity in each country so that local organisations can do beach clean-ups in order to create long temporal time series databases and conduct local outreach and awareness. Our goal is to be the mediator and to work with people to achieve success in their local areas.
Fortunately, many people change their behaviour after being informed about the impacts of marine litter. In Europe, change started in 2008, when the European Commission released the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and marine litter was given international relevance.
With the recent Chinese refusal to import western waste, Europe created the Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy which will potentially contribute to reuse, reduce and recycling of plastic materials across the member states, having a circular economy approach to the problem of overconsumption of goods. Policy instruments and management tools are absolutely needed to address this issue, and they have to be easily explained to the civil society in order to influence behaviour changes. Rules and regulations alone will not change hearts and mind…Examples and actions will.
Over the last 6 years, I feel that this young organisation, mainly formed by women (80%), has managed to do a lot with very little funding, just because every single individual is very passionate about this topic. Everywhere we go, nationwide or abroad, people are really surprised with the amount of work provided. For me, as co-founder, nothing makes me happier than to put into practice what I learned in my classes: “Think globally, act locally!”. I have never been so proud to be a “trash person”.
For more information please check:
The community of Portuguese Speaking Countries: https://www.cplp.org/
Tara recuperável: https://tararecuperavel.org/manifesto/
Brigada do Mar: http://brigadadomar.blogspot.ie/
Ocean Alive: https://www.ocean-alive.org/
Portuguese Blue Flag Association: https://abae.pt/
European Environmental Agency – Marine Litter Watch: https://www.eea.europa.eu
Ocean Conservancy – International Coastal Cleanup: https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/international-coastal-cleanup/
Indonesian Waste Platform: http://www.indonesianwaste.org/en/home/
I do apologise in advance that most of the web links provided with this article are in Portuguese. Some websites might have English versions, but not all of them have them. If you are looking for relevant information about marine anthropogenic litter in English, I recommend these three important sources:
- MARLISCO: http://www.marlisco.eu/
- Marine Anthropogenic Litter open source: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-16510-3
- Marine Litter Network: http://marinelitternetwork.com/
Copyright of all pictures by APLM