By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

From nets to carpets and cash

Posted on June 26, 2015

THREE HOURS away from Tagbilaran Airport in Bohol is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country -- Barangay Guindacpan in Talibon, a community dependent on fishing.

DISCARDED FISHING NETS represent a large proportion of solid waste and pollution in the Danajon Bank
Edrich Baron, 45, a barangay council member, said that fishing wasn’t as good as it was before when the sea creatures were abundant and the community’s population was lower. Mr. Baron has two children in elementary school and juggles jobs as a fisherman and a seaweed harvester. In a month -- depending on the weather -- he earns P3,000 as a seaweed harvester. He barely makes ends meet. Any additional income is most welcome. But as much as Mr. Baron wants to change jobs, the community depends on the bounties of the sea, which, sadly, is not as bountiful as it used to be.

This is where Dr. Nick Hill comes in.

In 2012, Mr. Hill, then a Ph.D. student, was doing fieldwork in Bohol and Cebu, studying the interactions between seaweed farming and fishing and how to improve people’s livelihoods. Today he works on marine conservation as the project manager of Net-Works and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) Marine and Freshwater International department.

“I spent a year here in the Philippines during my Ph.D. so I know from experience that many communities need help… The support and enthusiasm and collaborative efforts of the Philippines [are present],” he told BusinessWorld during a media presentation and expansion of the British Embassy’s Net-Works project on June 10.

Net-Works addresses the growing environmental problems of discarded fishing nets in some of the world’s poorest coastal communities, starting in the Philippines. It is a collaboration between Interface, Inc., a global green carpet tile manufacturer, and ZSL, a charity devoted to worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats. One of the main thrusts of the collaboration is to protect and conserve the environment while providing additional income for the community.

It does this by enlisting poor fishing communities to collect and clean discarded nets which are an ecological hazard. The nets are then sold to Net-Works for P14 a kilogram (kg) -- this provides supplemental income to the fisherfolk. (According to the Net-Works Web site, 10 kg of rice could be bought from the cash earned by selling 25 kg of waste net.) After the nets are sold, they are compressed, packed, and shipped to Cebu, then on to Slovenia, where they are recycled into Nylon yarn to make into beautiful carpets. Interface carpets are sold all over the world. In the Philippines, it has a local dealer in Pasay City called the Barrington Carpets, Inc.

Net-Works also provides financial services through community banks called Community Managed Savings and Credit Association (COMSCA), with Mr. Baron as chairman.

“The savings of COMSCA have grown bigger since 2012. When the savings are enough, the members can make loans to pay school fees or improve their livelihood. It’s a big help because we live a poor life in Guindacpan,” Mr. Baron said in Filipino. He said the fisherfolk have also learned how to save money -- extra money that comes from ZSL’s net recycling project. On average, Mr. Baron said he gets an additional P200 whenever he collects discarded nets. He said the P200 is a huge help to his family.

Net-Works initially started in 2012 at Bohol’s Danajon Bank, one of the only six double barrier reefs in the world (Australia’s Great Barrier reef has only one barrier). About 6,000 years old, it is right in the middle of a global marine biodiversity area. The Danajon Bank is the source of livelihood for 40 communities, including Guindacpan. The average family income in the area is P292.41 ($6.50) per day -- way below the minimum wage.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, lost, abandoned, and discarded fishing gear like nets make up about 10% of the world’s marine waste. The old nets can persist for centuries and can cause “ghost fishing,” with the old net trapping and killing fish, thus lessening the yield for fishermen.

If all of the fishing nets discarded in the Danajon Bank area alone were laid end to end, said Mr. Hill, they would circle the Earth 1.39 times. Since 2012, 66,860 kg of net have been collected by the residents in 14 communities in Danajon Bank and the Bantayan Islands in Cebu. Mr. Hill said that Net-Works aims to collect 38,000 kg every year, which is more than the average weight of an adult humpback whale.

Net-Works started when Aquafil -- a partner, sponsor, and the world’s premium Nylon producer -- developed a technology that could recycle old fibers, said Mr. Hill. Aquafil then tapped Interface, a leading carpet manufacturer, which, in turn, talked to ZSL. The partnership aims to redesign the supply chain for nylon carpets in a way that creates a balanced ecology while providing additional livelihood opportunities.

Interface Asia-Pacific President Rob Coombs said that the partnership is an “inclusive business,” which benefits Mother Earth and her poor people in the long run. It’s not like any other supply chain. “This is not a charity, but a much smarter, more successful way to run a business,” he said.

In order to be successful, Mr. Coombs said suppliers should be treated as customers. An inclusive business, he said, affects both the socioeconomics and the environment by making profitable enterprises that create employment opportunity for low-income communities.

He added that Interface has an advocacy called “Mission Zero,” which is a commitment to eliminate dependence on virgin fossil fuel-derived raw materials in its supply chain by 2020. It is currently 60% on target.

But fishnets are not the only sea waste -- there are water bottles, food sachets, and plastic bags floating around the seas alongside many other items that have no business being there.

“We would love to tackle that,” said Mr. Hill when asked. “But we found out that about 50% of the trash along the beach and in the community we are working with are the nets. But the other forms of wastes? We’re looking for markets and for financial support. You have to be able to pay to take them off the islands to recycle. We haven’t got markets for these products but we’re working on them. We got to find companies who are willing to invest and recycle and buy the materials,” he said.

For now, the focus is on nets. After the success in Bohol and Cebu, Net-Works has announced its expansion into Northern Iloilo and in Lake Ossa region in Cameroon, Central Africa, where nets used for freshwater fishing create a similar environmental challenge.

Milliard Villanueva, the mayor of Concepcion town in Iloilo, expressed his support and enthusiasm for the project during the media presentation event. He said that his coastal community gets 70% of its income through fishing. The collection of discarded nets started a few months ago and he said it complements and strengthens the local government’s solid waste management program.