Regenerative seaweed farming can help to replenish our ocean and support millions of livelihoods. But traditional seaweed farming practices result in seaweed farming forming the largest component of marine plastic pollution contributed by small-scale fishing communities. First we must put this in context. On average, plastic waste generation per capita in the Philippines is less than half that in European countries. And people in coastal communities produce less plastic waste per person than their urban counterparts. But for the communities that we work with who depend upon the ocean, being low is not enough. They are keen to eliminate their marine plastic pollution footprint. Because traditional seaweed farming forms one of the largest components of the (relatively small) plastic footprint of coastal communities, a big part of our focus is to find an approach to reduce and ultimately eliminate marine plastic pollution from seaweed farming. We achieve this through a combination of changes to seaweed methods that reduce plastic waste, and improved plastic waste management to prevent any waste ending up as marine plastic pollution.
For this we must take a pragmatic approach. Biodegradable ropes and floats are prohibitively expensive for small-scale seaweed farmers. There are also problems with biodegradable materials in that they cannot be recycled, and in large enough volumes can create significant problems during their biodegradation. On the other hand, many plastics are very durable so can be used for a long time, they are cheap, and they can be recycled at the end of life. In short, we must use the material that is fit for purpose to eliminate marine pollution and contribute to replenishing the ocean. Whilst our ultimate goal is to eliminate plastics from seaweed farming altogether, we have started by switching out the single-use plastics that are not fit for purpose and contribute the major component of marine plastic pollution from seaweed (plastic “straw” that is called “soft-tie”, and Styrofoam that degrades in the water) with materials that are more durable and that we can recover and recycle at the end of life. In line with the waste mitigation hierarchy, we also focus on reuse, intercepting old plastic drinks bottles that were destined for the ocean or landfill to use as floats, and then capturing them at end of life to recycle. As a result we strive to achieve a net negative contribution to marine plastic pollution and are pleased to see evidence that marine plastic pollution in communities where we work is decreasing (watch this space for more updates).
We have ongoing work on new seaweed farming practices that further reduce plastic usage and waste. Our ultimate goal is to go plastic free. But our first priorities are to prevent and reduce marine plastic pollution, safeguard the livelihoods of millions of people depending on seaweed farming, and ensure that seaweed farming achieves its full potential in regenerating the ocean. Responsible use and management of plastics play an important role in supporting that process for now.
Take a look at how our first generation of regenerative seaweed farms compare to traditional practices.