Tackling sea waste


A fishing community in Kollam, Kerala, is showing the way in managing plastic waste they regularly haul in from the sea, says Rashmi Oberoi.

Unknown to most, a fishing town on the southwest tip of India is showing what a community can achieve when it decides to face an existing environmental threat and turn it into a solution, using ocean plastics to empower women, and literally build roads to a better future. The town of Kollam, in the southern most Indian state of Kerala has been in the news for all the right reasons.

An inspiring story

Fishermen here, along the Neendakara harbour in Kollam, have been harvesting fish and shrimp for decades, but with time, pollution in the form of plastic has become a humongous problem. The fishermen end up pulling out more plastic than fish in their nets, and spend a tedious amount of time just separating the filth, from their catch. The nets get tangled with copious amounts of plastic that gets swept into the sea.

With no recycling facilities available, and no proper methods of waste collection, the fishermen spent years just complaining, and throwing the plastic back into the water. Then Peter Mathias, a leader of a union for fishing boat owners in the region, decided to do something about it. He realised a ‘clean sea’ was the way ahead, and a necessity for the community’s survival.

In the summer of 2017, he asked state minister of fisheries J. Mercykutty Amma if she could set up a way to recycle the plastic that the fisherman hauled in. Since Kerala is a state that consumes a lot of fish, the increase in the amount of plastic in the ocean, would soon have plastic slowly seep into the human food chain. Finally, ‘Suchitwa Sagaram’ (Clean Sea) Mission was flagged off and the department of civil engineers agreed to build a recycling plant. Female workers were offered a chance to run the plant, empowering them to earn money in an economic landscape where most jobs, like fishing, are seen as a male bastion.

Now, thousands of fishermen collect all the plastic caught in their nets and, instead of tossing it back, bring it to shore to be recycled. Since August 2017, they have collected 65 metric tons. Thirty women then work to clean and sort the plastic. Since much of it is too degraded to be traditionally recycled, it is shredded and sold to road crews to strengthen their asphalt.

The programme has already had a positive impact. The fishermen said they have noticed a decline in the amount of plastic in their nets. And the programme is spreading around the region. The organisers have helped other fishing communities raise funds to build their own recycling plants, including a clam diving community who had tried to collect plastic previously only to give up when they had no way to dispose of it.

There is an urgent need and an effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Since a large part of India is surrounded by water, the people living in these areas depend on the ocean for their livelihood. Not only do these people revere the oceans, they also depend on it for their survival. Unfortunately, the ocean is filled with plastic. In 2010, there were an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic in the oceans across the world. This is a growing concern as it poses a serious threat to marine lives. Pictures of sea creatures stranded in plastic are surfacing on a daily basis.

Kerala’s coastline stretches to nearly 600 km, and the state is one of India’s top fish producers; over a million households are entirely dependent on the fishing industry. However, due to the rampant marine pollution, not only is the aquatic ecosystem under serious threat, the impact will eventually trickle down to the plate as well! The successfully implemented project in Kollam will now be extended to Kochi. Other state governments need to take notice of this initiative, get inspired, and adopt such plans.  

It is high time that we realised that water bodies are not meant for waste dumping. This Indian programme is being talked about the world over, and has also been featured in the National Geographic. The fact it has such great potential is because it is the stakeholders, the fishing community, who have taken the initiative. The most effective environmental initiatives are often community-led and intrinsically motivated by altruism, and a love for nature and wildlife. Literacy also plays a key role in mobilising effective solutions to problems like this.

Such a revolution is powerful as the local fishermen are bringing about this change with the help of women in their villages, who are also in the best position to communicate to and convince the rest of the community.

Rashmi Oberoi

Rashmi Oberoi an army officer’s daughter, who was lucky to travel and live all over India, as also a few years in Malaysia and U.S.A. Keenly interested in writing for children, she wrote two story books – My Friends At Sonnenshine, which was published in 1999 by Writer’s Workshop, Kolkata, India and Cherie: The Cocker Spaniel, which was published in 2009 by the same publishers. For a few years she moved into the corporate world of HR, but her love for writing took precedence, and she pursued her passion by writing articles and middles for newspapers, print and online maga- zines, including a children’s magazine abroad.