The Communities Transforming Trash to Treasure

Across our blue planet, the ocean continuously rolls onto our shores, be it powdery sand, abstract granite boulders or rounded pebbles etched with centuries of history. Tangled underwater forests of seaweed spark awe within us as shoals of glimmering fish flash between its green tentacles. All too often we are told that this place of serenity and beauty will soon become a distant memory, just like our childhood visits to these coasts. Whilst we cannot deny that some parts of the world are harder hit by the plastic scourge which intermingles with seaweed and masks our sand, there are inspirational communities everywhere which are halting the loss of this wonder before it’s too late.

For those living and working by the coast, our brightly coloured litter refuses to be left unseen in the shadows and for fishermen, this daily invasion has been enough to spark extraordinary change in one of our most traditional professions. Until recently, plastic was simply a nuisance spoiling their catch, whether that be washed up plastic or synthetic netting onboard limiting space for precious fish and so, agreed protocol saw plastic menaces thrown back overboard. Yet in Greece, a single fisherman started bringing back the debris he found, whether that be bottle tops, toy dolls or washing machines as our waste rapidly contributes to the decline in fish stocks. As this behaviour becomes an increasing social ‘norm’, other fishermen have jumped onboard with 100 fishing vessels set to join the project by 2020, bringing plastic, as well as fish, back to land to be either upcycled or recycled. Based on their pilot programme, they believe that these 100 boats could remove up to 10 tons of plastic pollution each month, aiding fish populations, seabird colonies and the local tourist economy.

5,000 fishermen in the small community of Kollam in India also hatched a similar scheme in August 2017 and since then, local boat owners have retrieved 65 tons of plastic from their local ocean, home to ever-charismatic whales and turtles. This community went one step further in a solution benefitting multiple aspects of life. Aided by government funding, they created the region’s first recycling centre run entirely by women to overcome plastic simply being moved from sea to land, and to reduce inequal gender opportunities in the local industry. Much of the plastic is too weather-beaten to be recycled and instead is shredded and sold to local construction workers who use it to strengthen asphalt for surrounding roads.

These revolutionary roads paving the way to a new future are also winding their way through Scotland, where MacRebur has recently opened their first factory. Here, unrecyclable plastic is used to fill potholes and resurface roads whilst also reducing the amount of oil required for tarmac, playing a small but crucial role in reducing our fossil fuel fixation. Incredibly, just 1km of road could house 684,000 plastic bottles or 1.8 million plastic bags!

Other ground-breaking companies include The Plastic Bank, a new kind of high street chain, currently in Haiti and the Philippines, which targets the super-poor instead of the fashion hungry. In many less developed countries, official waste management schemes are non-existent and therefore the piles of rubbish and open landfill sites which monopolise city edges provide a perfect informal employment opportunity for those in urban poverty. These workers collect recyclable or re-useable materials and sell them on to recycling plants or shops. Whilst this often leads to major sacrifices in health, their governments are increasingly supportive of the essential role they play, and slowly waste pickers are gaining both respect and a living wage. During Argentina’s economic crisis 20 years ago, street workers played a crucial role reducing rubbish in the city by recovering salvageable materials that could then provide an affordable input for struggling industries. Simultaneously, this helped provide an income for those in poverty while also moving the country towards environmental targets. The Plastic Bank aims to support the 15 million global garbage collectors by allowing them to cash in collected plastic for points which can be spent on anything from cooking fuel to WiFi to school tuition as they remove reliance on traditional currency. Well-known high street stores then buy these recycled plastics to increase their environmental image. Many businesses are focussed on gaining and retaining customers so if we, the consumers, demand greater social responsibility from corporations, they are likely to keep up with our cries for change with big organisations containing whole departments ready to answer your tweets or emails for transformation.

Unbelievably, individuals from all walks of life have created substantial change from just one simple action. Afroz Shah was appalled by the shin deep pollution on Versova Beach in Mumbai which sprawled out below his flat window so he joined his neighbour for a beach clean each weekend. For the first two months, onlookers simply stared as they trudged through the waste, but soon everyone from slum-dwellers to Bollywood stars joined the weekly beach clean and after two years of hard work, 15 million kilograms of waste has been removed, with the first turtles in decades recently hatching on the newly uncovered sand. Humble online creations have also spread such as the #2minutebeachclean by Martin Dorey which aims for each of us to change relatively little about our everyday lives. Even if you don’t live by the sea, river and street litter needs attention as it can quickly be carried to the ocean by the wind and rain. Communities with very little money or spare time have managed to make a huge difference by acting together and in fact, self-motivated locally led initiatives have been found to be generally more successful than larger guided projects. So what’s stopping you and your community?

Later in this blog series, we will give advice on hosting your very own beach clean but for now, the next article will give you food for thought about how you could transform your weekly shop by making small sustainable switches.

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair