How a Coke Can Spurred a Fisher’s Son to Save the Sea from Plastic Waste

In Greek mythology, the ocean is a life force. Its pollution threatens the globe

How a Coke Can Spurred a Fisher’s Son to Save the Sea from Plastic Waste
Waste washed up on a beach. (Jason Swain/Getty)

Even though Lefteris Arapakis loved the sea, he was never particularly interested in becoming a fisher. “I’d probably be the worst fisherman in all of Greece,” he told me on the docks of Piraeus, southwest of Athens. “I feel bad for the fish. And I find the whole process pretty boring.” One summer in the Cyclades islands, his father, a fourth-generation Greek fisher, was trying to convince him otherwise.

That day, when the team hauled up the nets, they were filled with a smattering of fish, big and small, but also a good portion of trash. This wasn’t unusual, but it was still troubling to behold. How was there this much trash in this one little net on this one little corner of the globe? One piece of trash in particular caught Lefteris’ eye: an aluminum Coke can. The iconic red can was not just sea-worn but from another era, almost vintage in its appearance. It turned out it was from the 1980s, he later learned — a can that had been living in the ocean longer than Lefteris had been alive. He picked it up and set it aside. But when the captain saw it on the deck, he snatched it up and tossed it back into the ocean. “That’s not our problem,” he said.

“I’ve never forgotten that moment,” Lefteris said, for he knew the trash was a problem. Greeks — and those who inhabited the land long before it was known as Greece — have been fishing in the Mediterranean for 40,000 years, and the profession remains a staple of both the Greek economy and its food system. Yet the once-vast biodiversity of the Mediterranean is disappearing. Over the past 50 years, a combination of climate change, pollution and overexploitation of the seas (largely at the hands of poorly regulated or illegal large-scale fishing vessels) has caused the fish population to decline by 34%. A 2018 report estimates that 62% of fish populations in the Mediterranean are being overfished, as compared to an estimated 32% worldwide. Unless something is done, the amount of fish and biodiversity will only plummet further. By 2050, it is predicted that there will be more plastic in the sea by weight than fish.

The imperiled state of the sea impacts the entire planet, but in Greece, the peril isn’t just an environmental or economic one — it is also psychic. “The sea is a mediating force in Greek mythology,” writes Marie-Claire Beaulieu, a classicist at Tufts University, who explains that throughout Greece’s most famous myths the sea is often the backdrop to valiant journeys, confounding shapeshifts, feats of heroism and connections with the divine.

Now, the sea is also central to how Greece portrays itself in its contemporary mythologies, glistening in travel magazines, luring tourists through images of pristine beaches and rocky cliffs. But while tourists float in the cerulean Aegean and pose for Instagram shots against Mediterranean sunsets and whitewashed stone houses, Greeks have been suffering the impact of the 2008 economic collapse for the past 15 years, with young people like Lefteris and many of his friends struggling to find work. In 2016, the youth unemployment rate was 60%, with a national unemployment rate of 20%, compared to 9.3% across the European Union. Although this had dropped to 27% by 2022, it was still second only to Spain across Europe.

At the same time, Lefteris’ father often complained that he couldn’t find qualified workers to hire on his boat. This seemed absurd to Lefteris — there were so many people out of work, and here were jobs for the taking in one of Greece’s oldest professions. Lefteris came up with the idea of a fishing school designed to repopulate the fishers of Greece.

Enaleia, which means “together with the fishers,” was a tremendous success. A few dozen signed up in 2016 and, within six months of graduating, 85% were employed. But the Coke can still vexed Lefteris, as did the abundance of trash that was damaging the marine ecosystem. Worst of all, most fishers just threw the garbage back into the ocean, even though their very livelihoods were jeopardized by plastic and other pollution in the sea.

Once again, Lefteris started thinking. What if there were some incentive for them to bring it back to shore? Fishers who netted trash along with their catch had already done half of the work of removing it from the ocean. What if there was a method to funnel the sea waste into the circular economy — that is, to recycle it into something else, ensuring it didn’t just end up back in the water? When Lefteris shared the plastic cleanup idea with his father, he replied, “Don’t embarrass me.”

But Lefteris managed to secure some funds and convince a few people at the Piraeus docks to collect the trash, offering a modest fee of 50 euros ($55) per month to anyone who brought it back to the docks. Despite his father’s concerns, the captains of the boats in the Piraeus harbor jumped at the opportunity to earn extra money. Lefteris’ proposal didn’t require any more work from them; instead of dumping their haul of trash back into the sea, they’d just dump it onto the pier. From there, the Enaleia team would weigh it, load it onto trucks and take it to a recycling center some 30 miles away, where it would be sorted and refashioned into plastic pellets. These pellets were then sold to manufacturers who used them to make new irrigation pipes, bottles to hold water and soda, and even clothing like jackets and socks.

It shocked everyone, Lefteris included, that his small operation had taken off — so quickly, in fact, that he barely knew how to keep up with demand. At the time of writing, Enaleia has helped collect 550 tons of plastic from the Mediterranean and expanded operations into dozens of ports in Greece, as well as into Italy and Kenya. In 2021, Lefteris was named a United Nations Young Champion of the Earth, which attracted more investors, more recycling and upcycling partners, as well as the attention of the Greek government.

Most important of all, the fish started coming back. “The fishermen are noticing a difference,” he told me as we walked past the lines of docked boats heaped with plastic nets. Some fishers report that, in certain places, they weren’t finding plastic anymore. And the fish seem to be returning to places long dominated by trash, reviving the profession and, most importantly, reviving the sacred, sullied seas. It calls to mind a now-iconic ancient painting, known as “The Fisherman,” of a sandaled man carrying a string of fish in each hand. Painted as a fresco around 1650 BCE, this painting is now thought to represent not just a fisher showing off his catch but also a mortal making an offering to the gods — the fish in hand something of great, mystic value worthy of a gift to the heavens. As Lefteris describes it, even today’s fishers tend to maintain a reverent relationship with the sea. “They live off it,” he said, describing a state of dependency that engenders respect and awe.

Fishing has long been an intergenerational profession in Greece, a trade passed through families. Yet making a living is becoming more difficult. Roughly 30,000 people work in the Greek fishing industry, with 17,000 registered sea vessels — more than anywhere else in Europe — dedicated to fishing. The majority of these boats are smaller than 20 feet. People are pulling more and more fish out of the sea (thereby contributing to overfishing) yet making less by doing so: Between 2008 and 2018, Greeks increased their fish catch by 5% but the overall value went down by 22%. As a result, fewer young people join the fishing industry, seeing how hard it is to make a living. Many youths leave Greece for greener pastures in countries near and far.

So, much as today’s fishers may revere the sea, they are still stuck living within the economy that has shaped its demise. Lefteris explains that many organizations have come to Greece to try to educate the fishers about the perils of overfishing the strained Mediterranean. “But if they need to fish to feed their family, they aren’t going to stop,” he said. “In fact, they’ll just fish illegally.”

Though the longtime fishers in Greece are struggling in concrete terms, their reverence for the sea — what it can offer, and what it can so easily take away — remains. If the sea is a commodity to be exploited, it is a sacred and bewitching one — marvelous and miraculous, tinged with magic and danger. It is a great mystery, its depths cavernous and inscrutable, containing monsters in both imagination and science, from giant squid to deep-sea fish with built-in lanterns, as well as worms that, when brought from the pressurized depths to the surface, change into a gelatinous goo.

Given the enchanting multiplicity of the sea, it is no wonder that it is so prominently situated in global mythologies. “Tell how at the first gods and Earth came to be, and rivers, and the boundless sea with its raging swell,” writes Hesiod early on in his “Theogony,” “and the gleaming stars, and the wide heaven above, and the gods who were born of them, givers of good things.”

In ancient Greek mythology, the sea was the conduit between the life of mortals and the afterlife or underworld. It practically had its own pantheon, known as the Theoi Halioi, or sea gods. Just as the sea is multifaceted, so too are these gods. Some were responsible for the moments that the sea was tranquil and sparkling, others for when it would become perilous and stormy. Some protected the sea’s creatures; others, its sailors. There were gods of beaches and of whirlpools, gods of sea-spouts and various kinds of waves. The sea was home to many monsters, too: its Sirens and its Scylla, which could swallow a man whole or break him apart with its jaws.

The sea is also central to science. Aristotle, now remembered as a philosopher, was also a prominent marine biologist who studied the behavior of aquatic animals while visiting the island of Lesbos — a place known today for having received hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing into Europe by sea. “Among the sea-fishes many stories are told about the dolphin, indicative of his gentle and kindly nature,” he wrote. “It appears to be the fleetest of all animals, marine and terrestrial, and it can leap over the masts of large vessels.” Ancient astronomers and cartographers relied upon the sea to map the Earth and sky, and it is featured prominently on the map of the world that Herodotus famously drew, where three continents — Libya, Europe and Asia — are joined in the shape of a brain around the Mediterranean. The three conjoined continents (then the known world) are surrounded by ocean on all sides, as if a planet suspended in space.

While Greece was once renowned for its seafaring warriors, it is now known as a titan of the global shipping industry. Yet the mighty stature of this industry in Greece may be something of a myth itself. Though the fishing industry boasts that it accounts for 9% of the country’s GDP, a recent Reuters report suggests that number is closer to 1% in reality. The country’s reliance on tourism, by contrast, is no inflated statistic. In 2021, more than 15 million travelers visited Greece, whose own population numbers less than 11 million. The tourists come for the ruins, yes, and that small sliver of Hellenic history for which Greece has come to be best known, but also for the sea and its beaches.

Like many other countries, Greece lost billions of tourist dollars in the early COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, the Ministry of Tourism launched a campaign to promote Greece as the destination of the post-vaccination summer: “All you want is Greece,” the slogan went, emblazoned over images and videos of pristine beaches, waterfront cafes and tourists floating on the halcyon seas. The efforts worked: More tourists visited Greece in 2022 than they had before the pandemic in 2019.

Yet, without fishers — without a healthy, bountiful sea — what is Greece? What are any of us, for that matter, without it — this conduit of human movement, this screen of mystery and longing, this setting of untold stories and myths, this mirror, this monsters’ home, this terror, this undrinkable water that literally and figuratively keeps us afloat and tastes like human tears? The contemporary Greek writer Christos Ikonomou explored this in his 2014 book of short stories, “Good Will Come from the Sea,” which tells four tales set in the wake of the debt crisis on a fictional Greek island, where everyone is trying to recover their personal economies and reestablish a sense of home in a country that they feel has betrayed them. In this way, each story is a contemporary tragedy — this island polluted by the toxins of a society hamstrung by the international banks and its own domestic oligarchy and corruption.

In one story, a drunk tavern owner skulks around the island in search of his adolescent son, Petros. The missing youth was last seen on a boat out at sea, suffering the humiliations of his boss, a filthy-rich shipowner, who terrorized Petros for sport. At a certain point, he had enough and jumped off the boat into the sea. That was weeks ago and he hasn’t been seen since. He’s likely drowned, of course, but the father won’t accept it. He pictures his son, suddenly appearing. “That’s how it’ll be,” he thinks. “Petros will come from the sea. For sure. That’s the only sure thing. It’s the only way. That’s where he’ll come from, for sure. Good will come from the sea.” If myths make meaning of life on Earth, they also offer a roadmap for survival, marking what is central to a landscape, what is perilous, what forces must be revered, feared and prayed to.

By now, Lefteris has shared the Coke can tale so many times it has, somewhat fittingly, taken on the characteristics of a myth. The can itself was a marker of a before time — made over 30 years ago, when soda cans were far more common than plastic bottles, when global plastic consumption was a quarter of what it is today, and the sea was one-tenth as polluted as it is now. Plastic, which takes hundreds of years to decompose, is a Frankenstein creation of humans — a Pandora’s box that we can’t unopen. Today’s sea monsters, it might be said, are the masses of trash, the “ghost nets,” lost from ships that fish hungrily for eternity, the climatic warming and bleaching reefs that threaten our ocean’s — and planet’s — very existence.

Even so, Lefteris is optimistic. Plastic isn’t going away anytime soon, yet there are small- and large-scale initiatives that can lessen its impact on Earth’s creatures, its landscapes and the “wine-dark” sea upon which Odysseus once set sail, the benevolent life force of the Greece of both our mythology and our present day. Restoring the sea is an urgent imperative, for over 3.5 billion people on Earth rely on it as their primary source of sustenance. Like for so many of us here on Earth, it is home to Lefteris — in the short term and on the scale of the eternal. “When everything is said and done,” he said, “I’m going to die, and one way or another I’m going to end up in the sea.”

Reporting for this project was supported by the Society of Environmental Journalists

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