Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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450,000 Life Jackets – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on March 3, 2016

Abandoned life jackets

An estimated 900,000 refugees arrived in Europe by sea in 2015. A mountain of abandoned life jackets remains on the shores – 450,000 on the Greek island of Lesbos alone. These discarded life jackets are currently trash. Some are cheaply made and dangerous, many are decent quality life jackets that can be used again.

We know that life jackets save lives. We have enough data to target communities which would benefit from life jackets, particularly fishermen in low-income countries, where 97% of fishing occurs.

Can we, as a global community, create some initiative to recycle the abandoned life jackets?

Global cooperation between organizations would be required to be most effective, to garner the greatest amount of free publicity on social media and traditional media channels, and to attract the most funding from the widest number of sources.


  • Global press and public recognition of the importance of life jackets, at no cost to the drowning prevention field.
  • Global press and public recognition that drowning is an issue, at no cost to the drowning prevention field.
  • Removing life jackets from beach would be perceived to be of environmental benefit and of humanitarian benefit to the recipients, while remaining (necessarily) politically neutral on the issues of refugees and Syria.
  • Strengthen data on life jacket usage and community education efforts – target a few communities in a range of countries and assess attitudes about life jacket usage before and after life jackets are provided. Assess effectiveness of different educational programs. Experiment with providing life jackets both free or at a low cost to see if the perceived value is reflected in usage. Observe any unintentional outcomes, such as a greater overall awareness of water safety, particularly in children.


  • Funding requirements – Trained staff to identify good quality life jackets; transportation to other countries; disposal of life jackets which can not be reused or recycled; cleaning and sanitizing of life jackets; distribution of life jackets, including development and implementation of community education programs. Possible funding could be gained through grants, private donations, government funding for environmental clean-up and aid to indigenous peoples; research grants for injury prevention; and social media ‘GoFundMe’ type campaigns targeting those with an interest in environmental issues, refugees, and drowning prevention which would further engage the public.
  • Government permission – Permission would be required to export the life jackets and to import them into other countries.
  • Transmission of disease – It would be necessary to work with the WHO, the Greek Center for Disease Control, and other national health services to ensure that the life jackets were appropriately sanitized prior to transport to eliminate any chance of disease or pest transmission.

Potential Partners:

  • Reduce – Environmental groups – clean up the beach and the ocean by reusing and recycling the life jackets. Nylon fabric can take 30-40 years to decompose. The plastic foam inside life jackets can hundreds of years to decompose. If the discarded life jackets are swept to sea they may further endanger sea life.
  • Reuse – Drowning prevention organizations globally with existing programs and relationships to distribute life jackets.
  • Recycle – Informal groups are beginning to up-cycle the life jackets into backpacks and temporary shelters, but undoubtedly indiscriminately, not having the expertise to tell a good life jacket from a poorly made life jacket. We could partner with these groups to identify and recycle the poorly made jackets while diverting the good quality jackets for donation.

The life jackets aren’t going away on their own, just as drowning will not go away on it’s own. Given the current Greek economic crisis, that government does not have the ability to deal with the mountain of life jackets. According to the United Nations, many of the world’s poorest people depend on fish for nutrition and fishing for income. Dealing with the abandoned life jackets will not solve the issue of fishermen drowning globally any more than it will solve a debt crisis or the conditions which create a flood of refugees, but it does provide us with an unprecedented opportunity to make a statement and to make a difference. Are we capable of the big gesture?

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