by Alexia Vlachou
ATHENS, Aug. 3 (Xinhua) -- A Greek organization is training local fishermen to collect plastic waste from the sea to protect the decreasing fish stocks in the Mediterranean.
Fish stocks in the Mediterranean deteriorate at an alarming rate and fishermen more and more often harvest plastic waste in their nets instead of fish.
Lefteris Arapakis, a 26-year-old entrepreneur in Greece, is addressing the issue with the help of fishermen.
Arapakis and his team offered training and incentives to fishermen to collect plastic from the sea, allowing both fish stocks and the ecosystem to recover.
"Until now we have collected more than 60 tons of marine litter from the sea. More than 50 tons was marine plastic, specifically plastic bottles, fishing nets, ropes, many plastic bags, bicycles, motorbikes, pieces of airplanes, boats on its own," Arapakis told Xinhua.
This year they collaborated with 160 fishermen and they expect to broaden their network with 600 fishermen involved by next year. Fishermen from Spain and Italy have also expressed their interest to work with them, according to the young entrepreneur.
"They (fishermen) are the heroes. They are now the guys who protect the sea from plastic," he said.
Arapakis, who comes from a fisherman family going back five generations, used to work with his father part-time during his studies. He knew firsthand that the fishing industry in Greece was hit by the economic crisis.
Back in 2016, when the capital controls were implemented in Greece and the unemployment rates soared, he introduced "Enaleia," the first fishing school of Greece to train unemployed people with sustainable fishing practices.
But soon he realized that there was a greater issue to deal with -- the plastics that were pulled from the sea and the fishermen's behavior of throwing them back into the sea.
"Among the waste, there was a can that expired back in 1987. It spent 30 years in the sea. But what shocked me more was that the fishermen took it and threw it back to the sea, saying it's not our problem. So we started training the fishermen to bring the plastic back to the port," he recalled.
Christos Panayiotou, a fisherman joining the action, described the effect of the change of the behavior. "We get a lot of garbage from the sea and now I have noticed that the waste has been reduced in places we go."
Collecting is just the first step of their plastic cleanup operation, which also involves collaboration with companies in Spain and the Netherlands to produce products such as T-shirts and socks from ocean waste.
"To clean up the plastics from the sea is one step. But we thought that it's better to recycle and upcycle them, so they don't end up again in the sea or a rubbish dump," Grigoris Nittas, mechanical engineer and operations manager, told Xinhua.
The fishing net is sorted and cleaned to recover all nylon possible. The regenerated nylon is processed in yarn for fashion and interior design industries.
"We clean the nets through our organization Mediterranean cleanup, and we upcycle them through Healthy Seas in the Netherlands," Nittas explained.
Via the collaboration with partners in Spain, plastic bottles collected from the sea were turned into apparel like shirts and coats.
"We want to make the sea plastic-free by actually giving value to this marine plastic," Arapakis explained, advocating the circular economy model of his project.
Arapakis and his organization were chosen again this year as one of the five regional finalists of Europe in the Young Champions of the Earth awards by the United Nations Environment Program.