Welcome to the Darwin Initiative ‘Planet Plastic’ blog series! The concern over plastic pollution has grown as the impacts of plastic can be felt all over the globe and is now even found in the food that we eat. This series will feature Darwin projects that are using innovative and creative ways to combat the plastic problem whilst securing livelihoods and improving biodiversity.
Our first blog highlights the work of a ZSL-led project that has taken a transformative approach to the plastic crisis in Southeast Asia.
Globally, 8 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans and over 100 million tonnes of fish are removed each year. On current trajectories, by 2025 there will be one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish. Southeast Asia is home to the Coral Triangle, a well-known marine biodiversity hotspot, but unfortunately it is also one of the major markets for fisheries products. An estimated 3.35 million artisanal reef fishers (>50% of the global total) live in Southeast Asia and depend on these declining fish stocks.
As well as being a hotspot for marine debris, over 85% of carrageenan (a thickening agent extracted from red and purple seaweeds) comes from seaweed that grows in Southeast Asia. An estimated 1 million fishers are dependent on seaweed farming as their sole source of income in the Philippines alone. The coastal communities that are reliant on seaweed farming suffer from the effects of overfishing and marine plastic pollution. Although the global market value for carrageenan is on the rise, with a projected value of around US$1bn by 2021, the current supply chain is fraught with inefficiencies and inequalities. Therefore, carrageenan is fast becoming the ‘palm oil of the sea’.
Net-WorksTM was co-founded by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Interface Inc and is an initiative that was created to address these issues. Communities are connected to global brands via a fair and inclusive business model, that started with the collection of discarded fishing nets. Collected nets are recycled by Aquafil, and supplied to Interface Inc who buy the yarn and turn it into eco-friendly carpet tiles. To do this, Aquafil has pioneered state-of-the-art technology to produce yarn from recovered fishing nets and other waste. Net-WorksTM has been progressively building on this foundation and to date have collected more than 200 metric tonnes of nets (and increasing daily) which is enough to go around the world over five times! This tackles several challenges at once: acting as encouragement to communities to clean up their local marine environment and ensuring that they have a way of disposing of old nets.
This business model has since been applied to other raw materials created by these communities in order to help us scale the impact; namely seaweed carrageenan and other plastics. We’ve already conducted successful scientific trials of ecological seaweed farming in the Philippines.
It has been a very positive journey so far, as something that started out as a prototype has now grown into a programme that has improved the marine environment for more than 64,000 people! One of the most striking changes we’ve seen is the sense of empowerment communities have derived from taking charge of their income and their environment, and with a model like this we can have a truly scalable supply chain – one that benefits all life. Through Net-WorksTM we have the opportunity to empower communities to dramatically change the face of marine conservation, forever!
For more information on project 24-027 led by Zoological Society of London in the Philippines please click here. The full article for this project can be found in the August 2019 edition of the Darwin Newsletter here.