Second Harvest: Recycling Marine Debris

Spring/Summer 2019

Galilee Port Manager Daniel Costa, atop the dumpster, and Jason Howell, the superintendent of state piers, manning the front loader, wrestled a clot of discarded otter trawl nets into the 30-yard receptacle in the Port of Galilee.

For three months, the fishing fleet had been dropping off their worn gear and other industry detritus picked up at sea and depositing it in one of two giant recycling bins—one for plastic, one for metal—on a sliver of vacant lot across from the Block Island ferry terminal.

The August morning was fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot, but the trash was on its way to a hotter place still. Rather than end its useful life in “wet storage,” ghost fishing to no purpose, this gear would vanish in a furnace and be converted to electricity.

Fishing for Energy, a public-private partnership, is one of the many innovative ways governments, trade associations, non-profits, eco-entrepreneurs, and other businesses are finding value in ocean trash. All kinds of marine debris—natural and manmade—is finding a second life in everyday products as varied as jewelry, skateboards, and compost. But, some in the business of recycling marine waste say these secondary products are worth far more than their market price as conversation-starters about the health of the oceans and as change-agents for consumers and manufacturers.

“At Parley, we see current plastic as a design failure. It’s like alien matter that doesn’t belong on this planet, and certainly not in the way we use it,” says Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans, an environmental organization that has joined athletic shoemaker Adidas to turn plastic waste into sneakers.

The scope of the problem of man-made debris and its effects on the environment are vast.

Carlie Herring, a research analyst for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, says, “Marine debris can be any number of items from things as large as derelict vessels to those as small as the microplastics you would need a microscope to see. The impacts to organisms and wildlife are numerous—two of the most common are entanglements and ingestion of debris. Researchers are also looking into physical presence of plastic and the chemicals added to it because the ocean acts like a sponge to absorb them.”

NOAA, which periodically convenes conventions on marine debris, and other environmental agencies and groups have concentrated most of their efforts on prevention, removal, research, and education.

“A lot of the focus is on turning off the tap—stopping the flow of debris from getting into the ocean,” Herring says. “There are only a handful of organizations that have used plastics already in the ocean to make new products.”

Yet, this small group is aiming to have an outsized impact.

“It is important for all of us to realize what is going on in the environment and take a stand and say no to single-use products,” says David Stover, co-founder and CEO of Bureo, which recycles ocean plastic into skateboards, sunglasses, and other products. “It’s the consumers who are going to have to make a change, and we are encouraging people to look at sustainably produced products and have a long-term view of the ocean.”

(Above) Bureo collects fishing nets, shreds them, and turns them into pellets that are molded into products such as sunglasses and skateboards. Photograph courtesy of Bureo

Running on Ocean Plastic

In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia, and her research team published an estimate of the amount of plastic in the ocean. The paper, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, featured in that February’s issue of Science, quantified the scope of what had become tangible in the public imagination as the Great Garbage Patch.

Jambeck’s numbersbetween 4.7 and 12 metric tons of plastic waste were entering the oceans each year and were projected to reach as much as 250 metric tons in a decadewere, for many, a clear call to action.

By then, designer and environmentalist Cyrill Gutsch was already three years into his effort to entirely reshape the way products are imagined, made, and packaged. Inspired by the exploits of Paul Watson, CEO and founder of Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation organization that espouses “direct action” campaigns, Gutsch founded Parley for the Oceans in 2012 to bring together a network of “creators, thinkers, and leaders” who shared his commitment to save the oceans.

Over the last six years, Parley has worked with rapper and fashion designer Pharrell Williams and German shoe company Adidas, among others, to find uses for its Ocean Plastic, a trademarked material made of ocean plastic spun into thread. Parley intercepts plastic before it can enter the oceans and collects other plastic washed ashore in the Maldives, an archipelagic nation in the Indian Ocean. The materials are cleaned, baled, and transported to its Taiwanese supplier that transforms it into a synthetic fiber.

Gutsch, who had worked with Adidas in the past as a designer, found a perfect application in athletic gear. In November 2016, Parley and Adidas officially released the first marketable shoe using Ocean Plastic woven into the shoes’ uppers. Adidas’ Parley products have been so successful that Parley is ramping up production to an expected 7 million pairs this year from 1.3 million in 2017, and the companies have expanded into athletic wear, including shorts, tank tops, and football jerseys.

Parley is now working with American Express to offer a credit card made of Ocean Plastic and with brewer Anheuser-Busch on taking the virgin plastic out of Corona packaging. The beer maker has also committed to cleaning up plastic pollution in 100 islands in Mexico, the Maldives, Australia, Chile, Italy, and the Dominican Republic.

“The long-term solution for marine plastic pollution isn’t in recycling alone, but in the redesign of the harmful material itself,” Gutsch said in a written statement. “We need to redesign and replace plastic and the system and thinking behind it.”

Net Worth

Five years ago, Rob and Brittany Webster were walking down the beach in Eleuthera, Bahamas, talking about the impact of marine debris—especially old nets, which continue to trap and kill wildlife long after they are separated from their owners. At the time, the couple was leading eco-adventures for young adults as the co-founders of Wild Studies. They had been collecting as much ghost gear as they could find on the shoreline and exploring the idea of creating a memento for their students, when Rob plucked a piece of rope out of the sand and tied it around his wife’s wrist.

“How about this?” he asked.

That playful gesture was the genesis of Planet Love Life, a company that turns old fishing nets into colorful bracelets adorned with durable hardware. Robert Webster, with a degree in marketing, was an entrepreneur with several businesses. Brittany Webster, a marine science educator, had an eye for fashion and design. The couple decided to bundle their skills and social consciousness into a for-profit business and started amassing old nets and ropes.

Jenga ® Ocean is made from recycled fishing nets. Photograph courtesy of Bureo

After stuffing them into overhead bins on flights from the Bahamas to Florida and shepherding them through customs, the Websters began working with organizations that were already collecting ghost gear. Like-minded individuals sent them nets, expanding the footprint of their inventory to points as far away as the United Kingdom, Japan, and Portugal. Planet Love Life also recycles monofilament fishing line—another ubiquitous source of ocean plastic.

In 2015, the company opened for business; to date, it has sold more than 10,000 bracelets. Reaching a finished product requires a steady supply of raw materials—the wear and tear on the nets renders only 1 percent as useable for the bracelets. The rest is recycled or used for other decorations.  

“To me, it’s not a solution,” Webster says. “It’s about creating awareness that leads to action. It’s all about telling the story—that we can lean on each other even though we are miles apart.”

David Stover, a Block Island native, had a similar revelation. In 2012, he was working for Ernst & Young, analyzing the financial prospects of coal mines in Australia, and spending his free time surfing. But, his work was unsatisfying, and he was disturbed by the omnipresence of plastic as he caught the swells off the Australian coast. Stover eventually connected with Ben Kneppers, a sustainability entrepreneur originally from Cape Cod living in Chile, and Kevin Ahearn, a fellow Lehigh University graduate from Montauk, New York, to develop a business around recycling ocean plastic.

The result was Bureo. Based in California and Chile, Bureo turns plastic nets into skateboard decks, Costa sunglasses, and Jenga game sets. It took the trio and fellow Rhode Islander Greg Swienton two years of study and experimentation to come up with a specific plastic source and an end product.

“There are many types of plastic floating in the ocean, and it’s not a simple venture to melt everything down together,” Stover says. “You have to have a really clean, really consistent source of plastic, and that’s not really what’s out there.”

They considered recycling plastic bottles, but “we didn’t want to be duplicative, so we started looking further down the line,” he recalls. Kneppers, who was studying sustainability in Chile’s wild-caught fishing industry, asked the fishermen about the types of waste they saw. Their answer: nets. Bureo won a small grant from the Chilean government and began engaging the fishing community in collecting and cleaning old gear.

Their first product was skateboard decks, but the founders quickly realized that they couldn’t sell enough to support Bureo’s true mission: recycling ocean plastic. They weighed “thousands” of ideas as they started looking for other manufacturing associates. With venture capital support from outdoor gear company Patagonia, Bureo continues to scout other collaborators and to expand the product line to include bicycle components, surfboard fins, and office furniture. The company is also taking its net collection operation to other parts of the world. In its first year, Bureo recycled 10 tons of plastic; in 2018 they recycled 150 tons.

“Our goals were to have high-value products that have an end-of-life solution. Costa Del Mar sunglasses is a good example,” Stover says. “They have a big consumer market and an established brand. And it was an opportunity to make customers aware of the problem and be a part of the solution.” Customers can recycle the sunglasses, which sell for around $200, by sending them off to a third party.

Nets are also being converted into energy.

In 2008, NOAA, in conjunction with Covanta, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Schnitzer Steel, launched Fishing for Energy, a program to support the collection and disposal of discarded fishing gear. NOAA reports that in the last decade, the program has awarded $1.65 million in grants, matched by $964,000 in state funds for 27 projects. Bins at 54 ports in nine states have collected and recycled more than 3.8 million pounds of fishing gear. Schnitzer Steel sorts the materials for metals recycling. The rest goes to one of Covanta’s waste-to-energy facilities, where 1 ton of derelict nets equals enough electricity to light a home for nearly a month.

In Rhode Island, the bins, located in Point Judith and Newport, are dumped four times annually. In 2017, the state collected 29.3 tons of old gear, making it the second highest port in the program, which spans both the East and West coasts.

“The fishermen very much appreciate it—not only is it convenient, but it’s also a great way to take derelict and ghost gear and dispose of it responsibly,” says Daniel Costa, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s state port manager. “The popularity is growing every year. The commercial fishing fleet is becoming better stewards of their own environment.”

Tackling the Big Stuff

One of the most intractable trash problems in coastal areas is that of discarded and abandoned recreational boats. According to the 2017 U.S Recreational Boats Statistical Abstract, more than 2.9 million recreational craft were retired between 2006 and 2017—and the vast majority sported fiberglass hulls.

Like other states, Rhode Island enacted legislation creating a process and a fund to remove shipwrecked, abandoned, and derelict vessels from local waterways. Still, they pose a serious and costly disposal problem. According to an October 2017 news story, a Florida state legislator estimated that Hurricane Irma created 1,500 derelict vessels with a $37.5 million disposal price tag. Hulls accepted at state landfills take up huge amounts of space.

For the last few years, Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association have been studying better end-of-life options for fiberglass hulls. Their efforts culminated in the Rhode Island Fiberglass Vessel Recycling (RIFVR) pilot project, which is exploring how to dismantle fiberglass vessels and process the material into cement in a way that is both environmentally sound and economically feasible.

Last spring, the RIFVR team presented an update on its progress at the Sixth International Marine Debris Conference, coordinated by NOAA and the United Nations Environment Programme.

“We are continuing to answer critical questions surrounding the lifecycle of recreational boats and the sustainable reuse of fiberglass waste,” says project manager Evan Ridley, who has been studying the issue since he was a research assistant at Rhode Island Sea Grant. “Boats constructed with composite materials offer an incredible opportunity for our state to establish a new network for the collection and recycling of high-value waste.”

Material Challenge

Reaping this second harvest is not easy—finding a consistent source of raw materials, identifying the right end product, containing the costs of materials preparation and transport, and selling the environmental message are complex challenges. But those who take them on feel that they have no choice.

“We are part of a movement that has recognized the problem and is working not only to get a solution, but working on how we stop plastic from getting into the ocean,” says Bureo’s Stover. “We are just one link in the chain.”

by Ellen Liberman

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