HEATHERMATTHEW

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What can you do?

 View of Ulcinj Harbour, Montenegro

View of Ulcinj Harbour, Montenegro

It's a question I hear all the time, accompanied by a shrugging of shoulders, shaking of heads, hands outstretched in surrender. Not in apathy, but a powerlessness in the face of overwhelming odds or adversity. What can one sole person do in the larger scheme of things? I wonder...

The other day we found a hedgehog. I didn't even know what it was, thinking it to be a banksia flower but then realising it was unlikely that an Australian banksia tree would be growing near a path in the old town of Ulcinj high on the hill. The hedgehog was curled up inside itself, immobile.

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I have never seen a hedgehog before, being familiar with echidnas, but knowing that they are similarly prickly. We bent down to look, it was small and visibly shaking. It could quite easily get squashed by passing feet or traffic.

Although the path is technically closed to vehicles, electric golf buggy type cars and rubbish hauling tractors trundle up it everyday hauling people or goods or rubbish.

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So we extracted a piece of cardboard from the overflowing rubbish skips nearby, scooped it up and put it under a nearby tree. Immediately Its little head popped out, feet splayed and it started digging. I don't know how long it will survive but it seemed the least that we could do.

We were on our way out to dinner and had just stopped by a postcard seller to purchase another postcard for my #91 days of postcard-based artworks. The souvenir shop owner started to put it it into a plastic bag after I'd paid my money.. I said "no plastic" and waited till he took it out.  We got into a discussion about plastic and rubbish, he shook his head, shrugged and said "what can you do?"

Rubbish is a huge problem in eastern Europe and the Balkan states. From Thessaloniki in Greece through Macedonia, Albania and into Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea; the tide of rubbish mounts in direct relation to the number of tourists who visit. Plastic bags and bottles are the worst, as well as those tiny insignificant bits of blue and green which wash up amongst the sticks and seaweed. I thought it was bad in Pottsville, Australia but here there is no turning away.

To go for a swim at Small Beach in Ulcinj, you have to wade past bits of semi deteriorating paper, tiny shreds of plastic from boats and walk on sand infested with cigarette butts. One morning I hauled a plastic bin to the tidal edge and filled it with a rubber hose, abandoned sandal, plastic bag, piece of broken tile, piece of plastic boating apparatus, rusted can and bits of blue and green balloons. Used toilet paper across this part of Europe is put in the toilet bins provided so at least you know that the paper in the sea is  unlikely to be toilet paper!

Here in Kotor, Montenegro, the streets are spotlessly clean for the cruise ships that disgorge their daily tourists by the thousands. But I wouldn't drink the water or swim in the port. On the other side of the lake where we are staying in a little hotel, the water is crystal clear. I go for a wim then watch as a strange white thing comes floating by. A plastic bag, I retrieve that, then find another.  Where the fishing boats moor is a scum of plastic bottles, fluorescent sea scum and coloured plastic bottle tops. I want to just get a net and scoop it all up and throw it in a bin - somewhere.

It's a bit like putting an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff instead of a fence at the top. Prevention is better than cure. So what can you do? Its a hard one but every time I say "no plastic" I try to engage the shop keeper in a little ecological discussion that ensues. I ask for paper wrapping - (I have an ulterior motive, I like collecting paper ephemera) but if there is no paper bag, then nothing is better than plastic. Maybe it will make a difference...I hope.

 Ulcinj Harbour close up of boat floating in a wash of rubbish

Ulcinj Harbour close up of boat floating in a wash of rubbish