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Hungary’s innovative cleanup competition battles pollution on the Tisza River. Learn about the initiative aiming to restore and preserve natural waterways.

The banks of Hungary's picturesque Tisza River bear witness to an alarming sight: heaps of plastic bottles, waterlogged Styrofoam, and sundry debris. These remnants, extracted in a single day, symbolize the relentless endeavors of volunteers participating in the "Plastic Cup."

Having originated in 2013, this distinctive 10-day contest pulls over 150 participants annually. Clad in life jackets, they take to their canoes, navigating Hungary's second-largest river in pursuit of errant trash. According to AP News, cumulatively, their contributions have seen more than 330 tons (about 727,000 pounds) of waste being removed from Tisza and its adjacent Hungarian waters.

“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,” Zsolt Tamas, the Plastic Cup’s competition director, remarked. This initiative, while aimed at enhancing Hungary's natural topography, holds a larger objective: to avert a burgeoning global ecological debacle by reducing the amount of waste drifting into vast oceanic expanses.

Recent times have heightened concerns surrounding the global plastic crisis. Numerous research findings highlight the dire ecological and health implications of plastic proliferation. Moreover, the United Nations has pointed to a concerning trend. Namely, 75% of plastic waste originates in urban realms, subsequently seeping into oceans, leading to detrimental repercussions like marine life mistakenly ingesting or getting ensnared by this waste.

Volunteers on the Tisza, equipped with yellow collection bags and aided by a user-friendly app indicating waste concentrations, meticulously gather refuse. The accumulated waste is then transferred onto “mother ships” — innovative floating platforms, undergirded by compacted plastic bottles.

As they journey downstream, camping at varied locations, this enthusiastic brigade manages to retrieve about 70 tons of refuse from the Tisza annually. Remarkably, nearly 60% of this undergoes recycling, with the remainder being dispatched to landfills.

Yet, Gergely Hanko, associated with the Plastic Cup, pinpoints a deeper-seated issue. Much of the waste embeds itself within the river's silt. “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,” he observed. A 2021 study by the University of Szeged underscored the high concentration of microplastics in the Tisza, with their presence surpassing even notoriously polluted rivers like India's Ganges.

Furthermore, Hanko identifies Transcarpathia in Ukraine, Tisza's upstream region, as a principal source of this pollution. In a proactive measure, the Plastic Cup extended monetary aid for waste management endeavors in Ukraine, facilitating the collection of 700 tons of litter in 2022.

Nevertheless, with global plastic production estimated at 430 million metric tons annually and anticipated to triple by 2060, the challenge remains formidable. Addressing this, a summit was held in Paris to mull over viable solutions to combat plastic pollution.

“I think environmental protection is everyone’s concern, to make sure that tomorrow will be livable. I think everyone has a responsibility,” asserted Eszter Hosszu, a 23-year-old Plastic Cup volunteer.

Zsolt Tamas envisions the Plastic Cup's initiatives spanning beyond Tisza to encompass Bodrog and Maros rivers. Collaborations with countries like Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria aim to replicate this impactful model.

In Hanko's words, the aspiration is not mere collection but restoration. "The long-term goal is not to collect garbage, but to organize long-distance canoe tours,” Hanko expressed. "We want to constantly clean (the Tisza), so that in the end, all we have to do is paddle.”

Samira is an Electronics and Communications Engineer by profession, but deep inside, her heart is a nomad! She's a state champion debater, a public speaker, a scriptwriter, a theatre actress, but most importantly — A GREEN CITIZEN! She thinks of herself as a storyteller who thrives on enjoying the life at fullest and telling everyone the tales of life.

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