The recovered plastic is sent to a recycling plant where it is made into pellets to make new products, such as socks, swimwear and furniture.
The fish market at Keratsini, west of Athens, buzzes restlessly, smelling strongly of the sardines and anchovies unloaded by trawlers into crates for loading onto trucks.
In front of the family fishing boat “Panayota 2”, Lefteris Arabakis was sorting the contents of his crop, which was infiltrated by various types of waste coming from the seabed in the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea, including bottles, shoes, plastic pipes, machinery, fishing nets and so on.
This 29-year-old economist, who co-founded the non-governmental organization “Enalia”, which helps fishermen to clean their nets from marine debris, said that the total weight of what he extracted on that day amounted to “one hundred kilograms.”
Lefteris Arabakis lamented that “there will be more plastic than fish” in the area by 2050, according to environmental reports. “We are swimming in plastic,” he commented.
The source of marine debris is not only Greece, but it is carried by currents from all over the Mediterranean.
Since its establishment, the organization has made more than 1,200 fishermen cooperate with it, and it is working to educate them about “the deterioration of the marine environment.”
The organization is active in 42 ports across Greece, and one of its most prominent activities is providing fishermen with large bags of marine waste, which they can put in the garbage upon their return to the port.
For every kilogram of plastic they transport, they are paid pennies.
And “often this amount is symbolic (for a) drink…”, said Lefteris Arabakis during a tour organized for journalists, as 175 countries meet in Paris to outline the first outlines of a treaty to combat plastic pollution.
Mukhtar Muharram, a team leader in Panayota 2 who participates in the “Clean Up” program launched by Inalia, said that the fishermen used to find “large amounts of plastic” in their nets, adding, “We just kept the fish and threw all the waste back into the sea.” .
Since October 2022, this non-governmental organization has extracted about 20 tons of plastic and old fishing equipment, bringing the total amount it has recovered from the sea since its establishment in 2018 to more than 597 tons.
The recovered plastic is sent to a recycling plant where it is pelletized to make new products, such as socks, swimwear and furniture.
Fishing nets account for 16 percent of all waste recovered, followed by HDPE (12.5 percent), low-density polyethylene (8 percent), metals (7.5 percent) and other recyclable plastics.
The rest, 44 percent, is waste made from non-recyclable plastics.
Hana Bertot, sales manager at the Skyplast recycling plant in Megara, acknowledged that it was “difficult to recycle” marine waste, describing it as a “challenge”.
These plastics, which often remain in the sea for a long time, decompose, and the potential for reuse is more limited.
Lefteris Arabakis comes from a family that has been fishing for five generations, but he became unemployed in 2016, during the financial crisis.
During one of his first trips to the Cyclades archipelago, he saw fishermen throwing waste from their nets into the sea. This scene motivated him to decide to tackle the problem.
“change of mind”
Besides Greece, Inalia also operates in Italy. The project also launched this year in Andalusia (Spain), Egypt and Kenya.
Nikolaos Mentes, a fisherman on the island of Salamis opposite Keratsini, feels great satisfaction when he sees “more fish” when he goes to sea.
This professional fisherman recounted that “the anchor often broke down in the past because of waste of all kinds, especially nets, and the engine used to turn off.”
For Lefteris Arabakis, the “change of mentality” of the fishermen proves that “any citizen or politician can contribute” to improving the environment.
However, he was keen to be realistic in the face of the threat posed by pollution of the seas. “We are dealing with the symptoms, not the real problem,” he said, as global plastic production remains at high levels.