Innovators tackle fishing gear waste
Nicole Baker had spent years on commercial fishing boats, recording the number and species of fish caught and reporting them to the federal government, which uses the data to inform managers of US fisheries. While still working as a fisheries scientist, Baker took a night and weekend gig to solve a big waste problem she discovered while on the job.
Baker had seen piles of old nets lying around in fishing harbors that were either destined for landfills or in storage because fishermen had no good options for disposing of them.
âI had read an article about a non-profit organization making sneakers from old fishing gear, and it was a light bulb moment for me when I realized that this equipment is plastic,â says Baker. . âI knew where the nets were from my experience as a fishery observer. So I understood who and where the specialized recyclers were. Then it was the game. “
The word “specialized” is essential here. Plastic fibers are by definition a difficult material to recycle. Fishing nets and ropes, in particular, are made of various plastics in different combinations and colors. In addition, the material is often in poor condition, requiring special treatment.
Baker started a company called Net Your Problem to collect this used specialized equipment and ensure it was used. It started in the summer of 2017 and has since collected 880,000 pounds of material – and not just lines, nets, ropes and floats containing plastic. She also collects rubber and metal chains.
Image: Odyssey Innovation
While Net Your Problem is based in Seattle, Baker and his small crew do most of their work in Alaska, going to ports and picking up old gear from fishermen’s storage piles. Sometimes they organize landing or collection events at the start or end of the fishing season.
In addition to his staff, Baker works with two Native American tribes who collect and prepare materials to send to recyclers in British Columbia and Denmark. She hopes to add recyclers in Europe and the Middle East that she has since heard of. These are the regions where she has identified recyclers who have set up to transform materials in plastic granules or pellets. But she is looking for new ones all over the world.
In some cases, Net Your Problem and their tribal and other partners separate the material. Then it’s loaded into containers in Alaska, shipped by ocean freight, unloaded at ports in British Columbia and Europe, and trucked to recyclers.
PLASTIX is one of the operations Baker works with. The company has developed a mechanical recycling facility in Lemvig, Denmark, which converts used fibers from the maritime industry into virgin type pellets. Plastic fibers such as fishing nets, trawls and ropes come from all over the world and are delivered to the PLASTIX factory.
âWe inspect, sort and split the fishing gear after use, depending on the type of plastic, color and diameter,â says Hans Axel Kristensen, CEO of PLASTIX. âThis can be quite a laborious step, as the recyclability of fishing gear is currently not considered by manufacturers or users, and we often receive material that needs to be separated, such as when a net made of only one material was repaired with another material.
After the material is sorted, it is shredded, washed, separated and dried. Then it is compounded and extruded into pellets.
Using PLASTIX’s OceanIX brand pellets reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 82% to 95% compared to using virgin plastic, explains Kristensen.
Fishing gear received from Net Your Problem is processed with material from other suppliers – a total of 50 to 100 metric tonnes per week.
Picture: Aleutian shippers
Customers use the pellets to make kayaks, cell phone cases, and lawn chairs, among other products.
Kristensen describes her partnership with Net Your Problem as a mutually beneficial relationship between companies with a common mission.
âThe two companies are fighting to prevent fishing gear from ending up in the ocean and the environment,â says Kristensen. âLiving in an interconnected world with cross-border issues such as ocean plastic waste, we particularly value relationships with partners such as Net Your Problem. It represents the interconnection the world needs to meet the global challenges of waste management.
Rob Thompson, Director of OdyssÃ©e Innovation in Tywardreath in the UK began exploring the idea of âârecycling plastic on beaches five years ago. Based on his findings, Thompson estimates that the fishing industry generates around 70% of this waste, much of which is fishing gear.
Thompson says he couldn’t find anyone recycling the nets across the UK. So he began to work on building infrastructure, bringing together several groups to help him collect polyethylene and nylon nets. These materials are collected from net makers, harbor masters, non-governmental organizations and charities, among others. Thompson sends what has been recovered to PLASTIX for recycling into pellets. Then he buys the pellets and uses them to make products together with manufacturers.
One collection issue that had to be addressed early on was that many small ports have limited storage. Thompson therefore set up centralized drop-off points in the south-west of the UK to pick up smaller quantities of nets.
âThere’s a whole process to getting all the material ready to be recycled and sent to PLASTIX,â says Thompson. âIn short, we recommend that all items be cleaned, disentangled and stripped of bits of rubber, polystyrene and metal, as well as any biofouling waste. [organic debris]. Once transformed into recycled plastic granules, the materials are put into molds and baked, ultimately giving us our end products.
Odyssey’s work does not end after collecting used equipment, not even after recycling it. Next, Thompson uses products made from netting – canoes and kayaks – to get out and pick up more trash. This is done through Paddle for Plastic campaigns, in which community groups and individuals travel on these small boats to waterways and coasts that would otherwise be inaccessible, and they clean up remote places. By now, Paddle for Plastic has gone global, supporting conservation efforts in Spain, Greece, UK, Africa and North America.
Many kayaks are donated to community groups around the world to help them with their own Paddle for Plastic events. Thompson’s concept of making products from marine litter to collect more marine litter goes beyond kayaks. It also has recycling bins made from old fishing gear that are used in beach clean-up projects.
âNow we are in the process of making hand-held surf planes,â he says. âMany more articles are in the works, some awaiting further product development. Others are waiting for more funding opportunities to be manufactured and distributed. But the best is yet to come. “