A new community-based project in Thailand is turning discarded fishing nets into face shields and disinfectant bottles to help during the COVID-19 crisis.
Thailand has one of the largest fishing industries in the world, but it is also the top marine plastic pollutant.
Anan Jaitang, a Thai fisherman, used to pile up torn nylon fishing nets on the beach when the crabs were torn out of repair, but most of the nets were thrown into the sea, threatening to trap the turtles and suffocate the coral reef.
Now, Annan and others have an option that is not only profitable and environmentally friendly but will help Thailand deal with the coronavirus epidemic.
A new community-based project is allowing small-scale fishermen to recycle 10 baht (32 cents) per kilogram of discarded nets, or about one or two, from push sticks to mouth shields and disinfectant bottles.
“If no one had bought my fishing nets, they would have piled up like mountains,” said Annan, who goes through about 36 nets every quarter, fishing in the eastern coastal province of Rayong.
Among more than 100 artisan fishermen from four coastal villages in eastern and southern Thailand, he has joined the project, run by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).
With 50,000 small fishing vessels and 10,000 merchant ships, Thailand has one of the largest fishing industries in the world and is also its top marine plastic pollutant.
Hundreds of endangered marine animals float off the coast of Thailand each year. Between 2015 and 2017, about 74% of sea turtles trapped on the beach and 89% of dugongs were injured due to nets dropped or lost at sea, official Thai statistics show.
The United Nations says about 640,000 tons of fishing nets end up in oceans worldwide each year, becoming “ghost gear”.
In addition to tackling Thailand’s stubborn pollution problem, the project provides a rare universal solution to global challenges.
Thai design company Qualy is buying most of the fishing nets collected by EJF.
Its recyclable and manufacturing activities are located in Thailand, in contrast to similar projects in other countries that send nets abroad for recycling.
Workers at the Recycling Factory in the central city of Ayutthaya wash the nets before feeding them into a shredder that mixes the blue nylon granules with the dye and melts the product into molds.
During the epidemic, 700kg (1,500 lb) nets were cut to make a qualifier face shield, alcohol spray bottles and push sticks for lift buttons and ATM machines to avoid contact.
“We have already sold more than 100,000 push sticks during the coronavirus epidemic,” said Thosafol Supmethikulwat, marketing director.
He declined to give financial details but confirmed that net recycling operations, including sales in Europe, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, were profitable.
“Buying nets supports the livelihoods of fishermen, and we can make new products out of them,” Thosafol said. “It’s even better when it also helps save our environment.”
The Thai government has welcomed the initiative.
Ukrit Satapumin, director of Thailand’s Office for the Protection of Marine and Coastal Resources, said: “We welcome any attempt to remove the net from the ecosystem.
The EJF said the project collected more than 1.3 tonnes of used nets from a pilot phase two months ago and plans to expand it to all coastal provinces by the end of the year.
“It’s really important and urgent that we address this issue,” said preacher Ingpat Pakchairchakul.
“Local communities are already very environmentally conscious, but they just need a helping hand from other sectors.”
For the fisherman Annan, the project not only generated extra income, but also brought a smile to his face, thinking that his garbage contributed to a worthy cause.