From food packaging in shops to straws in bars, single-use plastics are so ubiquitous in modern society that they can be hard to avoid while navigating through daily life. As a result, plastic waste is now reaching sites that were either pristine or, if contaminated by other means, untouched by plastic pollution.
One such place is Tisza River. The Danube’s largest tributary makes its way from Ukraine to Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Serbia – collecting plastic along the way. The main source of Tisza’s plastic litter is the flood of PET bottles coming from upstream Hungary, Ukraine and Romania. At times, plastic waste reaches several metres in height in the floodplain of the river, a unique forest wilderness.
In response, around 400 volunteers took to the water this past August to race homemade boats and remove plastic debris from the river’s banks. People of all ages put on their swimming costumes and sailed boats made from recycled plastic.
This unusual race, known as the Plastic Cup, runs for 70 kilometres from Szatmárcseke to Tiszamogyorós in Hungary. Along the way, the racers — who call themselves Plastic Pirates — collected over 10 tons of waste. Around half of the plastic collected will be converted into furniture by the Belgian firm Waste-Free Oceans, while the rest will be sorted into PET bottles, glass, plastic and metal, and recycled in Hungary.
For this 6th edition, a total of 20 teams took part in the competition. Their first task was to build their vessels entirely from plastic bottles, filling them up with dry ice to help with buoyancy.
“Plastic pollution is rampant along Tisza river. Our team, JoinTisza, collected 80 bags full of rubbish in a single day,” said Magnus Andresen, of UN Environment. His team won the competition by collecting the most waste.
“The Plastic Cup shows the power of sport and volunteering in raising awareness about river protection and the importance of waste management,” said UN Environment’s Filippo Montalbetti, another member of the JoinTisza team. “The Plastic Cup is unique since it combines environmental awareness, sport and local cultural values into a community-and team-building competition.”
The JoinTisza team was brought together by the EU-funded JoinTisza Project, which supports the shared management of Tisza river, and the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Team members came from eight countries – Hungary, India, Italy, Morocco, Norway, Serbia, the United Kingdom and the United States – all determined to beat plastic pollution.
“It’s always risky when people who have never met before work together in a new and challenging environment. However, they all put it in an excellent performance, making new friends along the way and exchanging ideas on how to beat plastic pollution,” said Cup organizer Miklós Gyalai-Korpos, of PET Admiralty.
The clean-up felt like a celebration, with archery, traditional products and songs on display along the voyage. "Plastic Pirates", a documentary about the Cup and Tisza, prepared by the Cup and film-making NGO Filmjungle.eu, was also shown at various stops, including museums, churches and farms. “We’ve spent the whole week wet, bitten, tired and somewhat bruised but it’s been an amazing trip... we’ve helped bring Tisza river in Hungary back to life,” said one Plastic Pirate.
The Plastic Cup initiative organizes events, waste collection campaigns, exhibitions and discussion throughout the year. Its aim is to preserve waterbodies and promote watersports and community-building.
Aside from actively participating in the race, UN Environment hosts the Secretariat of the Carpathian Convention, under which seven countries commit to protect the Carpathian region and support sustainable development, and supports the JoinTisza project.