Along the coastlines of Indonesia—one of the places in the world where plastic trash is most likely to escape into the ocean—fishermen are now getting paid to haul in plastic along with their daily catch of fish.
A German startup that recently launched in the U.S., called Got Bag, works with a network of 1,500 fishermen near Java, Indonesia, to collect plastic, which is then sorted and recycled into pellets that are turned into thread that the company uses to make backpacks and other bags. A single bag uses between 3 and 10 pounds of ocean plastic, depending on the size of the design.
“The fishermen—because of overfishing—can’t catch enough fish anymore to make a living and support their families,” says Matthias Paisdzior, the startup’s North American head. “But what they do catch is a lot of plastic.” Previously, the trash just created more work. After removing old bottles and other plastic containers from their nets, there wasn’t a way for fishermen to easily sell it—and the plastic would be dumped out and end up in the ocean again. The startup is providing a new source of income.
When the plastic is sorted, anything made from PET, the common type of plastic used in water and soda bottles, is set aside to be cleaned and recycled into the material that the company uses in its products. The company is also working with the Indonesian government to help set up recycling infrastructure in rural areas, so that other types of plastic that are pulled out of the ocean can be processed separately.
While some other companies claim to make products from ocean plastic, many actually collect plastic near coastlines—preventing it, in theory, from becoming ocean plastic in the first place—rather than attempting to remove the plastic from the water itself. The team saw an opportunity to begin to deal with the enormous problem of plastic waste that is already in the ocean. (Ocean Cleanup, the nonprofit working to collect plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is also beginning to make new products from ocean plastic.)
Already, Paisdzior says, the company has been able to recycle more than 250,000 pounds of plastic, or around 129 tons. As the company has been working with fishermen over the last few years, it has seen some signs of improvement in the area. “There are actually times that we don’t have enough plastic to craft new products,” he says. Of course, the waste they’ve collected so far is a minuscule fraction of the total plastic in the world’s oceans. By one 2015 estimate, there are more than 150 million metric tons of plastic in the water. Many other changes need to happen to stop the flow of plastic waste—from redesigning packaging to creating new recycling infrastructure and using new technology to capture plastic waste in rivers before it reaches the sea. But as those solutions scale up, the world will also need to find ways to deal with the ocean plastic that already exists, and turning it into products is one solution. Got Bag plans to expand to other locations next, beginning with the Philippines.