Fishers in the Greek port of Keratsini used to throw their old fishing nets into the sea, harming wildlife, disrupting ecosystem services and indirectly threatening human health. Thanks to training from the non-profit enterprise Enaleia, fishers from this and 41 other ports in Greece have stopped littering and instead recover marine plastic with their nets.
Humanity produces over 430 million tonnes of plastic a year globally, two-thirds of which are short-lived products that soon become waste. Abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear is the deadliest form of marine plastic, experts say, threatening 66 per cent of marine animals, including all sea turtle species and 50 per cent of seabirds.
“We caught a lot (of plastic), but as soon as we caught it, we kept the fish and threw the plastic back into the sea,” said Mokhtar Mokharam, the team leader of the Panagiota II fishing boat. “It’s been two years (since our boat started) collecting plastic. It’s better now that we’re collecting it, to clean the sea.”
To address the plastic pollution scourge, experts say governments and businesses must lead three market shifts – the reuse, recycling and reorienting and diversification of products – and embrace a circular economy.
“We can’t deny our plastic waste problem. It follows us everywhere, in the largest cities, the smallest villages, the highest mountains and the deepest seas,” said Arnold Kreilhuber, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Europe Office. “We encourage solutions that reduce plastic waste generation, help manage waste sustainably and ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all. Through strong policies and market shifts using already existing technologies, we can reduce plastic pollution by 80 per cent by 2040.”
At a joint event with UNEP on the port of Keratsini ahead of World Environment Day on 5 June, Enaleia announced that it will now start working in Egypt and Spain and upscale its activity in Kenya and Italy. The expansion will involve local partners in some of these countries. Enaleia has so far collected a total of 770 tonnes of plastic. By 2024, it expects to be able to collect 1,000 tonnes of plastic per year.
Since 2018, the non-profit enterprise has worked with fishers and companies in Greece to promote a circular approach and make marine ecosystems more sustainable. Fishing nets account for 16 per cent of the waste Enaleia recovered in Greece that reached the recycling plant, followed by high-density polyethylene (12.5 per cent), low-density polyethylene (8 per cent) and metals (7.5 per cent). Other types of recyclable plastic accounted for 12 per cent of the recovered waste, while the remaining 44 per cent was made up of non-recyclable plastics, organic waste, microplastics and non-identifiable material.
Embracing a circular approach is what Lefteris Arapakis, a UNEP Young Champion of the Earth for Europe, had in mind when he co-founded Enaleia.
“We are training fishing communities to fish plastic from the sea and give us their used fishing equipment. This prevents it from entering the sea and becoming the deadliest form of marine plastic – ghost nets,” he said. “And then, together with recycling companies, we are able to turn this material into new, sustainable products and further support the fishing communities in collecting plastic from the sea.”
Every night, coordinators hired by Enaleia at the ports in their network collect and weigh the plastic each boat has recovered. The boats receive money for every kilogram of plastic they deliver. Through a third-party block-chain system, they certify the port of origin and specific type of plastic. The plastic is then taken to recycling companies that transform it into pellets. It is finally delivered to different companies that upcycle the marine plastic to make new products, including socks, swimming clothes and furniture.
Finding recycling companies that could process the plastic that Enaleia’s fishers collected was not easy, said Arapakis, as it required a special cleaning procedure. Skyplast accepted the challenge. But not all types of plastic can be recycled.
“We recyclers are not magicians. We can’t recycle everything. Some of the packaging that we receive here is not designed for recycling,” said Lefteris Bastakis, founder of Skyplast. “We want packaging producers to put more effort to produce recycling-friendly packaging.”
This is one of the many issues that the international community addressed in Paris from 29 May to 2 June at the second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2) to develop an Internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. The new legal instrument, which is expected to cover the full life cycle of plastic, could be in place by 2024.
As country representatives start arriving in Paris, Greek fishers have docked their boats this week, the last of the fishing season. They will now wait until October to fill their hulls again with fish – and plastic.