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Ocean Optimism in a Sea of Plastic

By Heather Koldewey |

Plastic pollution is a huge threat to our ocean. Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Dr. Heather Koldewey looks at the problem and what Net-Works is doing to help.

I’ve sailed for three whole days to one of the most isolated places on Earth to conduct a science expedition in the Chagos archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s the first day and we’re in a small boat heading to our first dive site. I am in paradise, surrounded by wildlife, turquoise seas, and idyllic tropical islands.

Suddenly, I spot something in the water and feel excited – could it be a pod of dolphins, or a turtle coming up for air? As we get closer my heart sinks and I see it’s a plastic water bottle, drifting gently across the ocean. As I scoop it up, I realise that absolutely nowhere is safe from our disposable lifestyle. There is only one ocean, we are all connected and when we throw something away, there really is no ‘away’.

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I’m fortunate to have the best job in the world. I spend time in spectacular marine environments where I get to dive, study extraordinary wildlife and work with coastal communities. But the challenges facing the ocean, particularly the deluge of plastic pollution, can at times seem overwhelming.  Personally, the only way I can cope with the deluge of problems in the ocean is to focus on finding solutions and take one step at a time – in our digital era best summarised by the hashtags #OceanOptimism, #OneLess, and #Nets2Carpet!”

Roughly 8 million tonnes of plastic is estimated to enter the ocean each year. Predictions are that by 2025 there will be one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in the sea. Clearly something needs to change, and fast.

Net-Works, a partnership between ZSL and Interface, is part of a growing movement that is driving a rethink in the way we value and use plastic. In fishing villages in the Philippines and Cameroon, where Net-Works operates, plastic fishing nets were commonly discarded in the sea and in lakes, or along the coast. They caused pollution and damaged marine life, inadvertently trapping and killing fish – a phenomenon known as ghost fishing.

Through Net-Works, people are motivated and supported to collect discarded nets and sell them into a global supply chain, where they are recycled into yarn to make carpet tile.  Communities no longer see used nets as waste. Instead nets represent:

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Since Net-Works began in 2012, we’ve seen first hand how educating and empowering communities and putting a value on plastic waste has successfully changed behaviours. The 35 communities we work with have so far collected over 100 tonnes of nets for recycling. That’s enough to go around the world twice! By 2020 we hope to expand Net-Works globally, with the aim of better protecting 1 billion square meters of the ocean.

Back home in London after my trip I see stark reminders of the scale of the challenge. It’s a sunny day and the green spaces and streets around our hectic, diverse, beautiful capital city are choked with litter. Plastic bottles clog the Regent’s Canal that runs through the zoo. I take heart in the fact that there’s a real wave of positive change happening through innovative programmes and collaborative partnerships like Net-Works and campaigns like #OneLess. Together, we can all take steps to prevent plastic from polluting our ocean. Because there is only one ocean – feeding us, sustaining us, connecting us. 

Dr. Heather Koldewey is Head of Marine and Freshwater Conservation Programmes at ZSL.

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