Salamis, Greece Three divers’ heads bobbed in the sea. Then two white balloons emerged. Attached to them, retrieved from a depth of 16 fathoms (29 metres, 96 feet), was the brown tangle of an abandoned plastic fishing net.
The underwater cleanup, just 1.5km (1 mile) off the island of Salamis and 40km (24 miles) from Athens, has been a small contribution to the growing efforts to rid the Mediterranean Sea of plastic waste.
As it celebrates its 50th World Environment Day, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) recognizes that fishing plastic from the sea is like grabbing a tiger by the tail.
Trying to deal with the problem once it’s in the ocean is a big mistake. We have to stop it first, Alejandro Laguna, UNEP’s director of communications for the Mediterranean, told Al Jazeera.
It doesn’t matter how many people we involve, we have areas in the ocean we can’t reach, or the plastic may get so small we may never be able to [retrieve] it, he said.
The latest measurements by UNEP have found an average of 64 pieces of microplastic fragments less than 5 mm (0.2 in) in diameter in every square meter (10 sq ft) of the Mediterranean Sea.
Plastic takes years to break down and degrade in the sea. Such an amount on the surface suggests a staggering level of pollution underneath.
UNEP is convening a global treaty conference to reduce plastic pollution and recycling. If agreed, it would take effect gradually starting next year.
But the European Union has legislated plastic reduction and recycling measures since the turn of the century and has found itself outdated.
Half of the plastic ever produced was manufactured this century, research shows (PDF), leading to ever higher pollution rates.
Enaleia, the Greek non-profit organization that recovered the fishing net off the coast of Salamis, has decided to grab the tiger by the tail.
This meant solving an economic problem. Picking up trash is expensive. It requires human hands and transportation.
The contribution of the founder of Enaleias, Lefteris Arapakis, was to reach a cost per kilo that few thought possible, and he did so by exploiting existing activities.
I’m probably Greece’s worst fisherman, said 29-year-old Arapakis, a fifth-generation fisherman who scandalized his family by studying business and economics.
We went fishing and my family boat filled up with plastic. The crew would have thrown it back into the sea. I said, what are you doing?
Arapakis has done the math. There are approximately 14,500 licensed fishing vessels in Greece. If each of them brought their plastic to port, they could collect tons of it every day. The problem was getting the fishermen to do it.
At first, they think they were crazy, Arapakis said. But we try to find activist fishermen and decision makers in every port. When you reach them, something magical happens. They begin to recruit the rest of the fishermen themselves. That’s how we went from two [boats] to 3,000 throughout the Mediterranean.
This includes 1,200 in Greece, almost a tenth of the fleet.
Arapakis has targeted countries with the highest packaging consumption and the most developed industrial base to undertake recycling Greece, Spain and Italy.
His team has just recruited its first activist fishermen in Egypt and Kenya.
The anglers receive a nominal salary of up to 50 euros ($53) a month, provided by blue-chip donors like Pfizer, Gant, Allianz and the shipowner, Costas Lemos Foundation, but belief is what really drives them.
The nets have cork along the top edge and lead weights along the bottom edge, and are meant to stand vertically in the water, fisherman Nikolaos Mentis told Al Jazeera.
The plastic bags drift in the nets and, catching the current, they tip them sideways so that they cannot catch any fish.
Plastic also causes costly mechanical problems.
If I ever see a floating plastic bag that could get caught in the propeller, I try to pick it up, Mentis said. If I’m not affected, someone else will be. Not just plastic shopping bags, but also large, thick nylon tarps used by fish farms.
The turning point came with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the first five days of the pandemic lockdown, we lost 40 percent of our donors, said Arapakis, who has been driven out.
A friend advised him to delegate more tasks to locals in the 42 Greek ports where Enaleia handles the dumpsters.
By including the locals behind the scenes, we showed them we were legit and this increased the number of anglers participating. All of a sudden, our plastic collection took off, Arapakis said. We went from 15 tons [in 2019] at 50 [in 2020]and at 150 [in 2021].
His latest plan is to get away with vacationers.
We work a lot in remote beaches of the Cyclades [a group of Greek islands]that don’t have access from the mainland, where a lot of plastic washes up, Arapakis said.
Paying the cleaners would have been expensive, but he found sponsors for vacationer tickets.
They clean and bathe in the summer, she said.
The cleaning model based on Enaleia’s synergy is still small, managing to collect only 250 tons of plastic per year.
To put this into perspective, Greece consumes 270,000 tonnes of plastic annually, recycles 85,000 tonnes and buries 141,000 tonnes in landfills, according to the Institute for Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE).
There are simply about 43,000 tons missing from the equation, most of which is assumed to be in the environment.
But Enaleia has grown 17-fold in five years, more than tripling every year. At that rate of growth, it could recover 114,000 tons of plastic a year in another five years.
Enaleia, whose name means in the sea, has also captured the public imagination by focusing on the plastic of the sea. Its largest category of recovered plastic is discarded fishing nets, which are made into synthetic fiber clothing.
Enaleia recently partnered with Skyplast, a plastic recycling plant west of Athens, where it sends its cargo for processing.
Skyplast is the market leader, responsible for 17% of plastic recycling in Greece, but has gone beyond the drudgery of sorting, shredding and hot washing soft drink bottles.
Skyplast has recruited blockchain code writers to create a tracking process from cleaning to reused retail products and markets its plastic chips as Recovered Seaside Plastic.
It has shared this technology with other recyclers through a certification vehicle called KeepSeaBlue.
The initiative is working. British supermarket chain TESCO proudly advertised that it was using recovered sea plastic from Greece to package its fresh fish.
Retailers have no choice but to make their products more environmentally friendly, KeepSeaBlue spokeswoman Maria Karka told Al Jazeera.
There is a huge market and consumer demand for it. So the big players are switching to more responsible practices.
The moral benefit could help the recycling industry compete with cheaper virgin plastic.
What I see with some brand owners is that they’re all in favor of sustainability and using recycled material and all that, but it all comes down to price too,” said Hana Pertot, Skyplasts sales director.
The extinct carrying bag
State initiatives lack the marketing expertise of Enaleia and KeepSeaBlue, but have a scale advantage.
Greece introduced a 3 cent charge for plastic bags at supermarket checkouts in 2018, following an EU directive, and raised the price to 7 cents the following year.
The Institute for Retail Research (IELKA) has found that by 2021 the use of plastic bags in supermarket chains has decreased by 99.9%, more than meeting the EU target of reducing consumption to 40 bags per person per year.
Greece’s per capita consumption dropped from 167 to 0.1 and created an industry for biodegradable bags.
There are also examples of spectacular public failures.
After 2001, the EU introduced a blue bin system for plastic, paper, metal and glass waste.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Greece was still sending 80% of its household waste to landfill in 2018 because municipalities were not implementing the program properly.
But Arapakis insists that the blue bin program is not a failure, because the programs and layered approaches complement each other.
The municipality of Salamina is an example of this. It benefits from Enaleia cleanups, implements the blue bin program, shreds and composts its prunings, and last December introduced two new programs that financially reward consumers.
Vans are sent to homes to buy recyclables ordered with discount coupons.
Shredders placed outside supermarkets issue coupons redeemable for 3 cents per packing item at the checkout.
Since Christmas, 700,000 items of packaging have been recycled into plastic, aluminium, glass, Antonis Vakalis, the waste manager of Salamina municipality, told Al Jazeera.
We even have people going out and picking up discarded packaging on the street to put it in the shredder and claim their ticket, he said.
Before Christmas these objects would have ended up in the environment, few in the blue bins and most in landfills.
Having founded Enaleia to give himself and others paid work, Arapakis is now looking to quit, helping to meet UNEP’s goal of reducing marine litter by 80% by 2040.
We will have helped solve one of the major social problems of our time, he said. Don’t you think that the know-how we will have acquired will help us solve other problems?
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