"We are all responsible for a clean environment. We should not wait for others, including municipalities or NGOs to clean up our mess!"
Veronika Mikos has over 10 years of experience in managing international projects related to nature conservation. She is an economist and the Project Coordinator of the Healthy Seas initiative (Web: http://healthyseas.org) since its inception. Healthy Seas collects waste fishing nets with the help of divers and fishermen in order to create healthier seas and recycle marine litter into new textile products. Ms Mikos studied Business and Tourism at universities in her native Hungary and Finland. Her thesis was on “The role of ecotourism in raising the environmental awareness among the local communities – based on case studies from Hungary and Finland”. Ms Mikos speaks Hungarian, English, German and basic Greek and Dutch. She is an active Member of ECOCLUB.com since 2005.
ECOCLUB.com: What first attracted you to the world of Conservation and Ecotourism?
Veronika Mikos: My parents raised me to respect and protect nature with all its creatures, including plants and animals. So, it was obvious to me that I want to work for a good cause, create value with my work. I am a kind of idealist, yes. Since my childhood, we were always taking holidays with an “eco-mind”, although the concept of ecotourism was not clear for my parents. I think they just followed their intuition and had good intentions. For me, nature conservation and ecotourism are closely connected.
ECOCLUB.com: What makes the Healthy Seas initiative, which you have been coordinating for the past four years, unique?
Veronika Mikos: There are several important initiatives to clean up and safeguard the seas. The nets collected by Healthy Seas are not sent to landfills or burned. Instead, they are recycled in order to create high-quality products that the public, the consumers can recognise and choose. And with their choice of buying something good, they support a good cause and this way more sea clean-ups can be organised. Sustainability is the focus, from both the environmental and economic point of view. We focus only on lost fishing gear because we have the right partners on board and the technological background for the recycling of these nets and creating beautiful new products.
And with their choice of buying something good, they support a good cause and this way more sea clean-ups can be organised. Sustainability is the focus, from both the environmental and economic point of view. We focus only on lost fishing gear because we have the right partners on board and the technological background for the recycling of these nets and creating beautiful new products.
The strength of Healthy Seas is that it has a simple, appealing and easy to understand
ECOCLUB.com: People in the past were used to the idea that picking and processing rubbish, be it from the land, the coastline or the sea was one of the basic obligations of the state (or of a municipality/region) particularly in tourism destinations. Can a small NGO, supported by a handful of socially responsible businesses, match the scale needed?
Veronika Mikos: Marine litter is a serious problem which is negatively affecting the entire tourism industry, including the ecotourism sector. It is a problem for all of us. Imagine that, even remote Antarctic habitats are not free from this pollution - every ocean and sea on Earth is affected, that means also the beaches.
First of all, in my opinion, we people, are all responsible for a clean environment. We should not wait for others, including municipalities or NGOs to clean up our mess. We should prevent that litter ends up on the beaches and in our seas.
Healthy Seas applies a two-way approach in order to achieve its mission. Namely, recovering ghost fishing nets from our seas - with the help of divers and salvage companies - and preventing waste fishing nets from ending up in marine ecosystems or in a landfill, with the help of fishermen communities and fish farms.
But as we know prevention is always better and more effective than cure, not only in relation to human
ECOCLUB.com: Does your organisation have plans to expand and set up "subsidiaries" worldwide or are you happy to be a model/pilot project, for others, including the state, to follow?
Veronika Mikos: At present, the initiative is operating in Europe, focusing on the Adriatic, Mediterranean and the North Sea, all of which are regions important for biodiversity and tourism, where waste fishing nets are collected with the involvement of various stakeholders such as divers, salvage companies, fishermen and fish farms.
Healthy Seas has the potential to be expanded and replicated more widely. Our results, including the number of nets collected year by year, are growing exponentially. We also get more and more public and media attention, which is great.
Effectively tackling the problem of derelict fishing gear and, more generally, marine litter clearly requires long-term, coordinated action at the local, regional and global level. We can not save the world alone, but by doing something good we hope to inspire others to follow.
We only started four years ago, but our work is having a much bigger impact than we could have imagined. We receive requests for cooperation from all over the world (Australia, Japan, British Columbia, Pakistan, Peru, just to name a few). We are continuously looking for new partners and funding sources to be able to expand the initiative.
ECOCLUB.com: You have clearly described a circular economy model and it has been argued that the circular economy and the green economy in general, will create many green jobs. However, there is a criticism that many green jobs are voluntary or poorly paid. With reference to green NGOs in particular, some seem happy to use foreign, unpaid, volunteers - also avoiding rigid employment laws preventing foreign labour - rather than local, fairly-remunerated employees? What is your view?
Veronika Mikos: Obviously the situation must differ in different parts of the world. I can only talk about Europe since that is where we operate. The activities of the Healthy Seas initiative are widely supported by volunteers. Divers and fishermen are collecting waste fishing nets for us voluntarily, because they like to be involved, like to be part of our storyline “A Journey from Waste to Wear”. We cover their costs related to the activities and offer them many other benefits, including communication and promotion benefits, media and public attention. Besides that, many people are approaching us continuously, who like our work and like to be involved in one way or another. So, it is a process which is generating itself and it’s definitely something which creates positive energy. In the European society, voluntarism is growing. It is becoming a more popular way for people to spend some of their free time for a good cause.
ECOCLUB.com: Going back to fishing nets, how imperative is it that they are removed from the ocean, compared to other pollutants?
Veronika Mikos: Approximately 10% of all marine litter consists of abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear. It is a global problem that requires urgent action. Every year, some 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are left in our seas and oceans.
These discarded, lost or abandoned fishing nets are sometimes called “ghost nets” because they keep on fishing uncontrolled. The nets are often found on and around shipwrecks which are highly important places for marine biodiversity. Millions of marine animals, including dolphins, seals, turtles and birds suffer because of entanglement in these nets which leads to serious injuries and death eventually. Ghost nets continue to catch and kill' marine animals, not only fish.
Besides, ghost nets have negative impacts not only on marine wildlife and marine ecosystems but also on human health, beach quality, navigational safety, the economic well-being of states, the tourism industry and fishing and maritime industries.
For example in the United Kingdom, municipalities spend approximately €18 million each year removing beach litter. In 2008 it was estimated that there were 286 rescues of vessels with fouled propellers in UK waters incurring a total cost of between €830,000 and €2,189,000.
ECOCLUB.com: And how much would it cost to remove all fishing nets?
Veronika Mikos: Unfortunately, I can not answer this question, since there are no precise data available about the size of the problem, only estimations based on UNEP/FAO reports.
ECOCLUB.com: A sceptic could argue that Healthy Seas' efforts are commendable but a (reverse) drop in the ocean. Do you have any statistical data of what percentage of total discarded fishing nets you have retrieved so far, and how long would it take to retrieve all of it considering that some more is being thrown each day?
Veronika Mikos: As I already said, we can not save the world alone, but by doing something good we hope to inspire others to follow. Effectively tackling the problem of derelict fishing gear and, more generally, marine litter, clearly requires long-term, coordinated action at the local, regional and global level.
These are our latest results:
Our results, including the number of nets collected year by year, are growing exponentially. Last year in 2016, we collected about 152 tonnes of nets. It is almost as much as the total of the previous three years. Healthy Seas has the potential to be expanded and replicated more widely.
We are currently active in a number of countries in Europe. We are also part of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, together with many dedicated people and initiatives from all around the world, in order to find solutions and exchange information about the problem of lost fishing gear, which is a global problem.
ECOCLUB.com: How is the recycling of fishing nets actually done?
Veronika Mikos: The fishing nets collected by the Healthy Seas initiative are delivered to a plant in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where they are prepared for the ECONYL® Regeneration System. It is an innovative process to regenerate waste fishing nets and make nylon yarn. The factory in Slovenia is unique and the only one in the world.
The process is an industrial innovation which is actually not recycling but regeneration, upcycling. Recycling always results in a lower quality of something either paper or plastic, you can touch, see or smell the difference compared to the original material. However, in our case, exactly the same high-quality polymer (nylon yarn) can be produced from fishing nets than from virgin oil.
ECOCLUB.com: Does regenerating nylon from discarded fishnets have a smaller environmental footprint in terms of energy use, water use than ordinary nylon? If so, is it cheaper?
Veronika Mikos: Recycling contributes to resource efficiency and a substantial reduction in climate impact since ECONYL® polymer generates 55% less CO2 emissions than virgin polymer. Also, it is very interesting that this nylon yarn can be regenerated endlessly without quality loss. The only difference between recycled ECONYL® yarn and regular nylon yarn is its origin, the fact that it is 100% regenerated from waste. There are no other differences in performance or quality.
ECOCLUB.com: Reselling discarded fishnets as a fashion eco-nylon item probably makes economic sense and helps raise awareness, but why not just bury the retrieved fishnets in a 'sanitary landfill' and try to convince consumers not to purchase nylon ever again (as plastic microfibers from washed clothes end up in water bodies and fish), but natural, biodegradable fibres instead?
All fibres lose tiny particles when they are washed. We are fully aware of this problem and follow the latest research on this issue. We carefully monitor all the materials that we incorporate into our products and use in our production processes. Also, it is worth mentioning that fishnets ultimately lead to microplastic debris if they are left in the water for a long time, so it is better for the environment to recover them and regenerate them into new yarn.
Since the start of the twentieth-century plastic, this mineral, oil based material has blazed a triumphant trail through the world of consumption. It is economical, simple to process, and can be given almost any required quality. Our everyday life is full of plastic, and its presence in our surroundings is constantly growing. Unfortunately, we produce too much waste, not only plastic waste but
ECOCLUB.com: How about biodegradable fishing nets?
In my opinion, biodegradable nets are not solving the problem either. Even those nets remain far too long in the marine environment, catching marine animals and damaging the ecosystems every single day. The real good solution is prevention and to make sure that at the end of useful life waste fishing nets remain in the ‘loop’, they will be responsibly collected and recycled.
Linear industrial processes are about “Make, Use,
ECOCLUB.com: What are the broader relevance and connections of Healthy Seas with global environmental policies?
Veronika Mikos: Environmental, maritime and fisheries policies have in common both the need to conserve natural resources and the fact that they are all crucial vectors of competitiveness. Hence the benefit of combining Europe’s ambitions for achieving “blue growth” in the maritime economy with “green growth” while protecting the environment is that it will boost development in those sectors and foster a circular economy that prevents the loss of valuable materials. The United Nations Environment Programme launched a Global Initiative on Marine Litter which provides a global platform for the establishment of partnerships, cooperation and coordination of activities for the control and sustainable management of marine litter. The objectives of Healthy Seas are in line with current trends in international and EU environmental policy, the IMP’s Blue Growth initiative, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and other related policies.
ECOCLUB.com: We are living in turbulent times, and the fossil fuel lobby, climate deniers and ultra-nationalists are on the rise. From your experience, is the general public but also businesses becoming more or less receptive to the issues of recycling, circular economy and sustainability? Are they still eager to support your efforts at Healthy Seas and how can they best go about it?
Veronika Mikos: The setting up of Healthy Seas has already been initiated by businesses and NGOs. Since then the interest in our work grew more and more, and we are continuously getting new partners from various sectors.
Sustainability is a choice, both at the individual and the company level. We are lucky to have committed partners on board who chose this business model. Our initiative is very appealing both to businesses and to the general public because we have a simple and easy to understand storyline: A Journey from Waste to Wear. There is something very satisfying about taking marine litter out of the sea and turning it into a swimsuit which someone can then use to swim in a cleaner sea.
Healthy Seas is really exciting because it brings together a whole range of stakeholders and because it is solution based. It is an open initiative which developed learning-by-doing.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much. Healthy Seas clearly is an innovative and sustainably-funded, green initiative which will hopefully be locally replicated on a massive, global scale (think globally, act locally!). In terms of preventing the problem of marine litter, we need both the carrot of circular economy initiatives such as this one and the stick of more stringent and better-enforced marine protection legislation so that fishing boats and cruise ships alike, stop secretly dumping 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear and who knows how much litter of other types each year!