Waves of change

The Jordanian divers cleaning up the Red Sea for future generations and turning recycled plastic into livelihood opportunities for Palestinian refugees.

When scuba enthusiasts Seif Al Madanat and Beisan AlSharif returned to diving in Aqaba, Jordan, after the Covid-19 lockdown, they could not believe how much litter had amassed on the sea floor.

“We were mindblown by the amount of waste that accumulated because no divers had been collecting it during lockdown” explains Al Madanat, a pharmacist based in the Jordanian capital of Amman. “And when we started looking into it, we read that without intervention, by 2050, the volume of plastic waste in the oceans could exceed that of fish,” he says.

After meeting each other on a post-pandemic dive, Al Madanat, 37, and AlSharif, 34, bonded over a shared instinct to collect bags of sunken plastic. But the more rubbish they collected on their dives, the more they seemed to find.

Moved by the scale of the challenge, the pair launched ProjectSea, which in addition to cleaning and conserving the 28 dive sites dotted along Jordan’s 20 km of Red Sea coastline, is also recycling the recovered plastic into bags and other craft items - creating income for refugees.

To raise the money for the dives – which can be expensive – Al Madanat and AlSharif partnered with a local Jordanian brand, Herb + Design, to sell organic soy wax candles. After the product sold out of its first three batches, they were able to fund four group excursions.

AlSharif, who runs her family's logistics business from Amman, jokes that in the early days of ProjectSea, her friends and relatives would continually receive candles for gifts. "This is how we lit the path of ProjectSea,” she says. “It started as a very small idea, but we wanted to create a movement of sustainability alongside a movement of conscious consumerism.”

ProjectSea struck a chord with local divers straight away and soon also caught the imagination of scuba tourists from around the world. Three years on, the pair have completed more than three dozen clean-up dives and removed some 130,000 pieces of rubbish from the ocean bed.

“We wanted to create a movement of sustainability alongside a movement of conscious consumerism.”

Beisan AlSharif, co-founder, ProjectSea

A 2022 report by UNEP, the UN Environment Programme, estimated that as much as 11 million metric tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans each year. The increased reliance on single-use plastic items during Covid-19 only added to the problem, with some 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves believed to have been in use across the globe every month at the height of the pandemic.

The impact plastic pollution has on marine life is stark. A report in 2015 found that 90 percent of seabirds had plastic in their stomachs, while another study from 2014 estimated that half of marine turtles had eaten plastic, often mistaking it for jellyfish or algae.

“We have almost 500 species of fish and corals, which are colourful, healthy, and thriving,” explains Al Madanat. But while Aqaba’s corals have so far appeared to be resilient to climate change-induced bleaching seen in so many other parts of the world, the reef has been less lucky when it comes to plastic pollution, he says.

“It's not just a problem that Jordan faces. It's a global problem,” he tells Philanthropy Age. “Unfortunately, there are certain species of fish and marine animals that we just don’t see as frequently as we used to, such as stingrays and frogfish. There was a dolphin we called Hope, but we’ve not seen her for over a year, and we are sure it’s because of all the waste items in the water.”

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As much as 11 million metric tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans each year, according to UNEP.

ProjectSea, which is registered as a nonprofit organisation (NPO) in Jordan, has a roster of close to 400 volunteers, who travel from 40 countries to take part in the monthly dives.

Each descent lasts between 30 and 45 minutes, and divers are carefully grouped to maximise skill and experience levels. There are strict guidelines about how to collect rubbish without impacting the marine life they are trying to help. Divers are given gloves and mesh bags, and a technical briefing is held before each dive to stress the importance of leaving items that have become part of the ecosystem.

"You have to make sure anything that has life growing on it, just leave it, do not touch it," explains AlSharif, describing how coral can form around litter that has been left too long, and that young octopuses and crabs often house themselves inside bottles and cans.

The bulk of the rubbish collected is single-use plastic, such as cups, bottles, and food containers – the use of which multiplied during the pandemic - but teams have also recovered glass bottles, metal cans, industrial pipes, tyres, and even a car door.

This is why retrieving rubbish from the water is only a first step for ProjectSea. Their ultimate goal is to prevent it from being there in the first place.

But it is an uphill battle: the average Jordanian uses around 500 plastic bags annually, and this results in an estimated 100 million plastic bags discarded into the environment every year.

“Everyone can be hopeful, but hope has to be bound with action.”

Seif Al Madanat, co-founder, ProjectSea

In a bid to both reduce and reuse plastic items, ProjectSea has now started creating reusable tote bags and beach pouches from some of plastic items they recover on their dives. Designed in the blue hues of the ProjectSea brand, these are created by Palestinian refugees from the Orphan Child Welfare Association, a community centre run by AlSharif and founded by her father.

Located in the Jabal el-Hussein refugee camp in Amman, the centre organises weekly activities and vocational programmes for Palestinian refugees and AlSharif had the idea to get them to create tote bags from recovered plastic that can be sold to raise funds.

"We have an embroidery centre within the community centre, with all the mothers working on the tote bags,” she explains. “I wanted to create a product that will help us sustain ProjectSea, and at the same time have the ladies at the centre involved too, so we give them part of the sales and pay them for their time for doing this.”

Community is central to the ethos of ProjectSea. “We have very clear values,” says Al Madanat. “These are: education and raising awareness; women empowerment; and supporting local communities. Creating a community of like-minded people, conscious consumers, is very important to ProjectSea.”

Breaking gender barriers is also a goal, says AlSharif, who recalls that when she started diving, she was often the only female onboard. “When Seif and I started ProjectSea, I wanted to make sure we broke that barrier and so I started really focusing on having more women involved because I always felt like their participation in diving was very humble.”

The efforts have paid off and women now make up at least half of ProjectSea’s clean-up dive teams. “I was surprised that there were so many females who were certified divers but felt like they did not have a community to bring them together,” notes AlSharif. “There's something so special about bringing female energy to something that's very male dominant.”

In addition to the clean-up dives and recycled bags, ProjectSea is now also running workshops in local schools and is soon to publish an illustrated book about their story, with the intention of sparking greater awareness among the next generation of Jordanians.

“We can’t just do clean-up dives, this is not sustainable,” says AlSharif. “We really need to work on education and awareness and embedding it into our culture… We're very hopeful, this generation has so much to give. I feel like we're just paving the road for them. And then it's their job to take over.”

“We can’t just do clean-up dives, this is not sustainable.”

Beisan AlSharif

ProjectSea’s work is being noticed, and several private companies have come forward to support them, as have local environmental artists and innovators. One initiative, in collaboration with Spanish-based Precious Plastics, will see sponsored public benches - each made from 36 kg of plastic waste - soon appearing all over the city of Aqaba.

“We see ProjectSea as, hopefully one day, a global leader in marine conservation and creating a movement,” says Al Madanat. “Our slogan is ‘creating waves of change’. We wish that one day we can stop the clean-up campaigns and act more on the actual waste, trying to reuse that and eliminate it as much as possible.”

With forthcoming dives planned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE, the pair are seeking to drive engagement throughout the region. In February, they were nominated by the US Embassy to attend a programme in California and New Mexico to exchange ideas ahead of COP28, which they will also be attending in Dubai later this year.

“We've seen so many people following our lead in Jordan and in the wider region. Everyone can be hopeful,” says Al Madanat. “But hope has to be bound with action. And our action is targeting students, targeting the public, targeting the future generation. Because this is where hope is.” - PA