Indian fishermen traditionally trawl for sardines, tuna, hilsa, and catfish. But a new government program now finds them scouring for an unusual but enormous catch: trash.
Fisheries caught more than 25 tons of ocean plastic over the last 10 months as part of an initiative called Suchitwa Sagaram, or “Clean Sea,” sorting the load for recycling that will turn used bottles and bags into roads back on land, World Economic Forum reports.
“Pulling the nets out of the water is extra effort, with all this plastic tangled in them,” said Xavier Peter, a shrimp and fish trawler, in an interview with National Geographic regarding the new initiative. “It’s a bit like trying to draw water from a well — your bucket is somehow being weighed back down.”
But the effort is worth the huge yield. India’s 1.3 billion citizens use an average 11 kilograms of plastic each year, much of which has been historically discarded into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean nearby, according to World Economic Forum. Now, fishing communities are regularly sorting and shredding the plastic garbage, and converting it into material used for road surfacing.
The program is intended to solve two problems at once: destructive ocean pollution and affordable roadways.
According to a study by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, India's Indus and Ganges rivers carry the second- and sixth-highest amounts of plastic debris to the ocean, noted World Economic Forum. And the Indian Ocean is listed as having the second-highest amount of plastic in the world.
Meanwhile, recycled plastic is a much cheaper alternative to conventional plastic additives for road surfacing that can withstand the region’s brutal heat. Every kilometer of plastic road uses the equivalent of 1 million plastic bags and costs 8% less than a conventional road would to pave.
For the fishermen, the biggest bonus of Suchitwa Sagaram is that it may eventually improve local fish populations.
Many types of fish inadvertently consume and are poisoned by plastic in the ocean, while other sea life gets caught in and strangled by it. Some large swaths of plastic on the sea bed have even been known to block species’ access to their breeding grounds, according to National Geographic.
“It is affecting our work,” said Peter Mathias, who heads a regional union for fishing boat owners and operators in Kerala, in an interview with the magazine. “So in this way it’s our responsibility, and necessary for our survival as fishermen to keep the sea clean.”
And it is proving effective.
“So far, they have removed 10 tons of plastic bags and plastic bottles and 15 tons of discarded nets, plastic ropes, and other plastic items from the sea,” says Johnson Premkumar, program officer for training with the Suchitwa initiative, in a UN report. “Even though it is a small group of fishermen, they have freed the sea from 25 tons of plastic waste.”