The plastic problem

The plastic problem Netting for recycling at Nofir’s facility in Turkey

There’s no shortage of waste fishing gear, and there’s a growing number of ways of disposing of it as the problem of plastic waste becomes increasingly severe – and as it becomes the focus as steadily more attention.

Half a century ago fishing gear was largely self-recycling as most of it was made from materials that needed no encouragement to rot.Things changed when nylon and other synthetic fibres appeared, with all the advantages they brought of being materials that don’t vanish after a few trips; but in the process became a new problem that is only now getting serious attention.

The FAO has recognised fishing industry waste as a problem for more than a decade, and has even given this waste fishing gear its own acronym; ALDFG (abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear), and commissioned research that put a figure on the scale of the problem at 640,000 tonnes.

It’s a number we’re going to hear a lot of in the years to come, not least since the Attenborough Effect of the recent Blue Planet series has elevated the profile of the plastic waste pouring into the oceans to the level that the public at large has become aware of it.

Discarded fishing gear –whether lost or abandoned – is tentatively estimated to be around 10% of the plastic problem, although the scope of the problem as a whole remains unknown as there is no clear idea of the volume of plastic refuse, and of exactly how much of that finds its way into the water. Not that anyone who has spent time at sea can fail to be aware of the plastic problem. Almost every haul brings up bags, bottles, boots and other junk, much of it nothing to do with fishing – as well as the cracked floats and scraps of netting that form part of the man-made detritus that is found in every ocean.

This stuff doesn’t have to become marine waste, landfill or be incinerated, and there are options to dispose of this material.

Norwegian company Nofir is one of those collecting worn out fishing gear for recycling. According to Heidi Ruud, the venture began with EU funding in 2012, set up to collect nets and ropes across Europe, and the Norwegian industry accounts for some of the heavy volumes due to the steady replacement of aquaculture cages that need to be recycled.

“We dismantle fishing gear from northern Europe in Lithuania and from southern Europe in Turkey, and we are supplying the components to the recycling industry for production into other goods,” she explained.

“We take it all,” she said, adding that different materials have different values, and nylon 6 is the most valuable of these as it is ideal for recycling.

The highest value material frequently comes from trawl gear and aquaculture cages, and Nofir pays for this – but the company also takes the gear that can’t be recycled, providing a service to dispose of waste that its clients have no other way to dispose of.

“If we didn’t take it all, and just retrieved the most valuable materials, then we would be creating another waste problem. So we see the nylon collection as being a way to create value to be able to collect the less valuable materials that need to be recycled,” Heidi Ruud said.

Since its inception in 2011, Nofir has handled more than 26,000 tonnes of waste fishing gear from Europe, Asia, Africa and America. Last year it handled 6000 tonnes of discarded fishing equipment, working mainly with its regular partners who supply recently decommissioned fishing gears. These are net lofts, fish farming operations, fishing companies, net washing facilities and others, as well as occasional clients who need to dispose of obsolete or worn-out equipment.

“We make an agreement to collect the fishing gear, and arrange transport from wherever the client is located, and the fishing equipment is loaded onto a truck to be taken to our facilities in either Turkey or Lithuania to be dismantled and graded. The sorted and packed material is then shipped to one of the many recycling centres we work with in a number of countries.”

She explained that the retrieved material finds its way back into production to be re-manufactured into a variety of items, ranging from garden furniture to shopping baskets, snow shovels, carpets and textiles.

Recycling

While Nofir is one of the largest players in this business, there are also smaller business emerging with a more focused agenda, such as UK startup Fishy Filaments, which aims to take end-of-life fishing gear and some of the plastics caught during normal fishing activities, and to transform these into commercially viable products that have the potential for a multitude of uses.

Its first product is intended to be a recycled nylon filament for use in 3D printing. Unlike established nylon recycling routes, Fishy Filaments uses mechanical and thermal processes that can be achieved at a local scale and with no harsh chemicals added.

It’s subsequent project is to complete its wor on recycling larger trawl nets made of polyethylene and polypropylene, and Fishy Filaments is working with Mylor Ventures Ltd, and with the support of the Newlyn Pier & Harbour Commissioners to establish a production unit at Newlyn in Cornwall.

The Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), set up to highlight the issue of lost and abandoned gear, has set up its own partnership with the Fat Face Foundation and Fourth Element, using recycled nylon to produce lycra beachwear from recycled fishing gear.

“The Ocean Positive range is a statement of intent, to do something meaningful to benefit the environment that we love and feel compelled to protect.” said Paul Strike, co-founder of Fourth Element. “We also wanted to address a requirement among our customers including ourselves, for a practical product that is comfortable under a wetsuit yet looks great as beachwear.”

Seine rope

One of the toughest things to recycle is seine rope, the combination of steel and plastics in its construction making it problematic  to deal with – and discarded seine ropes that have been spooled off the drums and into the water have often been a serious hazard for fishermen who can snag this either in their gear or around the propeller, sometimes resulting in serious damage to a vessel’s stern gear.

Albert Hartman who manages fishing gear sales at Dutch fishing gear supplier Visserij Coöperatie Urk (VCU) commented that seine rope sales have continued to grow from around 20,000 metres in 2009 to many times that amount as seine netting became increasingly popular. Today VCU frequently supplies 200,000 metres of rope in a six to eight-month period and they have invested heavily in the trucks and forklifts needed to handle large volumes of heavyweight rope at quayside anywhere from Denmark to France – and a key part of the seine rope service is recycling and a wake-up call a few years ago prompted him to set this up as part of the package.

“I saw a boat that had picked up some seine rope in its propeller and there was a lot of damage, with the propeller going one way and the gearbox the other. They were left with a major repair job. The rope had been discarded at sea and I had an idea who had done it,” he said.

“So we set up a recycling service. The recycling cost is included in the price of the rope. The rope and the steel content are separated, so everything is recycled.”

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