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Thousands of muddy plastic bottles, chunks of Styrofoam and other waterlogged pieces of rubbish are piled onto a flatbed trailer on the banks of the Tisza River in Hungary — a metric ton of waste that was removed by hand from the waterway and its floodplain in a single day.
It’s the haul of volunteers participating in a 10-day competition that draws over 150 people, life-jacketed rivergoers of all ages that pile into dozens of canoes to scour Hungary’s second-largest river for trash that has flowed downstream.
Since its start in 2013, participants in the annual Plastic Cup competition — which offers a prize for those who collect the most trash each year — have gathered around 727,000 pounds of waste from the Tisza and other Hungarian waters.
Zsolt Tamas, the Plastic Cup’s competition director, says the effort aims not only to improve and preserve Hungary’s natural environment, but to interrupt a growing global ecological crisis by preventing as much waste as possible from traveling farther downstream to the seas and oceans.
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“The biggest source of global waste pollution is rivers. The waste comes down the rivers, through the seas and into the ocean, where currents form it into big islands,” Tamas said, referring to collections of debris and microplastics that ocean currents gather into giant fields called gyres.
“If we can prevent this global problem on the rivers, then less will enter the oceans,” he said. “Prevention, solving it at the beginning of the pipeline is the best. If it doesn’t get into the Tisza, then we have nothing to pull out.”
Calls for addressing the global plastics crisis have become more urgent in recent years as studies conclude that exposure to such pollution can carry grave ecological and human health risks.
Carbon dioxide emissions stemming from plastic manufacturing are known to contribute to climate change, and some studies suggest that plastics, particularly when broken down into tiny pieces, can have an impact on hormones, fertility, and the endocrine, nervous and immune systems, and can carry an increased risk of cancers.
Research cited by a 2023 United Nations Environment Programme report says microplastics, tiny fragments less than five millimeters in length, have been found “in the deepest recesses of the ocean, in pristine mountain glaciers, in breast milk and human bodies.”
According to the U.N., 75% of plastic waste originates in municipal solid waste streams before being carried into the oceans, “significantly contributing to environmental degradation and biodiversity loss” such as marine and coastal wildlife becoming entangled in plastic waste, or ingesting it after mistaking it for food.
Volunteers in Hungary sort collected litter after arriving at a campsite on Aug. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Denes Erdos)
On the Tisza, volunteers disembark from their canoes and scale the steep banks of the river with yellow collection bags in hand, entering the dense vegetation and braving the thick mosquitoes, thorns and nettles as they search for waste. Some use an open-source online application as a guide, where any user can mark places they’ve discovered larger deposits of trash throughout the year.
Once their canoes are overloaded with collection bags, they offload them on waiting “mother ships” — makeshift rafts floating on pontoons of baled plastic bottles — where team members collect the bags and begin sorting through the trash.
The volunteers, who camp in a new spot each night as they make their way downriver, collect an average of around 154,000 pounds of waste from the Tisza each year. The group estimates it has removed nearly 4 million plastic bottles from Hungarian waterways, and all recyclable materials — around 60% of what they collect — is sent to recycling facilities for processing, while the rest is transported to landfills.
But Gergely Hanko, a conservation engineer and project leader for the Plastic Cup, said that while much of the waste can be removed by hand from the floodplain, there is much more that remains inaccessible.
“Part of the waste is built into the sludge of the river bed. It’s obviously not a good place for it, since fish and Tisza mayflies spawn there,” Hanko said. “We know that fragmented plastic … has harmful effects. It can get into the blood, it can get into the drinking water, it goes everywhere, into the bodies of animals.”
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While the quantity of solid waste pollution has been significantly improved on the Tisza in the decade since the Plastic Cup began, the concentration of microplastics remains high, according to a 2021 study by the University of Szeged, a southern Hungarian city straddling the Tisza.
That study found that microplastics in the river are present at 3-4,000 fragments per kilogram of sediment, a figure the study’s authors said is higher than that of India’s Ganges River, often touted as one of the most polluted in the world.
Hanko says a majority of the waste on the Tisza comes from its headwaters in the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine, where a lack of landfill capacities and collection infrastructure has resulted in improper disposal that carries the waste into Hungary following floods.
Tracing the problem to the source, the Plastic Cup last year provided financial support for waste management efforts in Ukraine, which succeeded in collecting 700 tons of waste from Ukraine’s Upper Tisza in 2022.
Yet as long as single-use plastics production remains high, such pollution is certain to persist. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the world produces 430 million metric tons of plastics each year, a figure that is set to triple by 2060 at current trajectories.
Over two-thirds of those plastics are short-lived or single-use products which soon become waste, and the U.N. estimates that 19 to 23 million tons of plastic leaks into aquatic ecosystems annually.
To tackle the problem, an international forum was held in Paris in May to exchange solutions on how to end plastic pollution. The forum drew on a U.N. study that found an 80% reduction in plastic pollution is possible by 2040 by “rethinking and redesigning products, reusing, recycling, reorienting and diversifying markets and addressing demand for durable plastics.”
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Eszter Hosszu, 23, came to volunteer in the Plastic Cup for the first time this year, and said she felt driven to take action by what she sees as a darkening future amid climate change and ecological damage.
“I think environmental protection is everyone’s concern, to make sure that tomorrow will be livable. I think everyone has a responsibility,” she said. “A lot can be done with events like this, if you think about how much garbage we were able to collect in just one day.”
Over the years, the Plastic Cup has expanded to clean-ups on the Tisza Lake, the Bodrog and the Maros rivers. Tamas, the competition director, says that creating similar organizations in other countries could do much to relieve the burden on the oceans.
The Plastic Cup has engaged in international cooperation with others in Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria, hoping to pass on the knowledge and experience they’ve gained to help others fight against pollution in their own rivers.
Hanko, the conservation engineer, said the organization’s hope is to bring the Tisza and other waterways into a condition where, rather than taking to the water to clean them up, their natural treasures can simply be enjoyed.
“The long-term goal is not to collect garbage, but to organize long-distance canoe tours,” Hanko said. “We want to constantly clean (the Tisza), so that in the end, all we have to do is paddle.”