Feature: Act now -- Greek UNEP prize winner calls for efforts against marine pollution

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by Maria Spiliopoulou, Valentini Anagnostopoulou

ATHENS, Dec. 18 (Xinhua) -- At the port of Keratsini, a Piraeus port suburb, Lefteris Arapakis was eagerly waiting for fishing boats on a chilly Thursday evening to upload a precious load. Not sardines or red mullets, but plastic waste.

With a vision to make the ecosystem sustainable, Arapakis in 2016 co-founded Enaleia, a social start-up that helps recycle and upcycle marine plastic waste.

For his innovative idea and consistent efforts for sustainable environmental change, the 26-year-old was named earlier this week as one of the UN Environment Program's (UNEP) seven Young Champions of the Earth for 2020, along with Chinese environmentalist Ren Xiaoyuan and others.

The winners will receive funding, mentoring and communications support to amplify their efforts.

"It was a great honor that the UN awarded me as one of the Young Champions of the Earth representing Europe for this year. It is a great responsibility for me and the rest of the team to be able to live up to this award. I hope it will inspire more people to take action, but I see it also as a recognition that we're on the right path," Arapakis told Xinhua.


Enaleia started as an initiative to fight unemployment in Greece amid the severe financial crisis which broke out in late 2009, he explained.

Coming from a family which has been in the fishing sector for five generations, Arapakis is the worst fisherman in Greece, as he introduces himself.

However, with a degree in management and economics, he decided to establish a fishing school at Keratsini and educate unemployed people to enter the fishing sector, when his father told him that he could not find people to hire for his fishing boat.

While they were drafting the curriculum, they went on a trip with the fishing boat to the islands of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea. Arapakis was shocked to see that fishermen were collecting in their nets not only fish, but also lots of plastic litter.

He recalls a can of a soda drink that had expired in 1987 and a fisherman who took it from his hand and threw it back in the sea, saying that this is not their problem. The young man did not agree.

"We researched on the topic and we found out that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea, so there is no use just getting out there more fishermen if there will be no fish tomorrow. And we decided to do something about that," he said.

They have done a lot about that. In addition to training about 110 people to enter the fishing sector, they started motivating fishing boats to haul tons of plastic out of the sea, offering also financial incentives to fishermen. They started from Greece and have expanded across the Mediterranean.

In the past two years in the framework of their project Mediterranean Cleanup, plastic waste is collected also from countries like Italy, Spain, Turkey, and Egypt.

In Greece and Italy alone, Arapakis and his team are now collaborating with 145 fishing boats, a total of 700 fishermen, and collecting from the sea four tons of plastic every week.


As warehouses started overflowing with this plastic waste, they sought ways so that it would not end up in landfills and the sea again. Gradually the 50 percent started reaching Greek or Italian recycling companies and the rest is upcycled into fashion products in Spain and the Netherlands, like jackets, t-shirts, backpacks, swimming suits, masks and socks.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge also for Enaleia. Due to lockdowns imposed to control the virus spread, many of the fishermen stayed at shore, while several of their sponsors withdrew their contracts.

Arapakis and his partners adopted the new standards, changed procedures and eventually at the end of a hard year they have amazing results to show.

The quantity of plastic collected from the sea and revenues quadrupled compared to last year.

"Our next plan, where we are going to invest the UN award is to expand this project, export this know-how into other countries, especially to countries that are facing severe plastic pollution in their seas and have big fishing fleet. So we are mainly focused to do that in Asia," he said.

One person alone cannot change the world, but united all together people across the globe can bring change and help protect the environment by taking small steps each day, Arapakis stressed.

"If I can send one message to people around the world that should be to act now. We cannot afford to wait for the future anymore," he told Xinhua.

"We need every single one. Doesn't have to do something big. Doesn't have to go and dive and clean the oceans. We just need simple steps. Stop using single-use plastic, collect a piece of trash every time you visit a beach. Simple steps and all together I think we can make a global impact," he said. Enditem

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