How’s It Done? The Net Recycling Process

How do you go from a pile of old discarded net on a dilapidated forklift pallet like those pictured below to a brand new sustainably made product?

Step 1: Locating and Acquiring Old Nylon Nets

It begins with identifying the nets that have been left out in the elements for so long that they are no longer suitable for fishing. One of the most damaging factors to nylon net is ultraviolet light from the sun – this makes the nets brittle, which means that they can’t be used to reliably catch fish any longer. Many of these nets have not been used for years and are simply sitting outside in the coastal elements, neglected and forgotten. Many have not been tarped properly or have been neglected to the point where their tarps have been ruined by the sun, wind and rain, leaving them tattered and useless. The nets themselves then become exposed to UV light from the sun and turn brittle, no longer useable for fishing.

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Despite the nets not being suitable for fishing any longer, the relatively low cost of storing the nets means it is typically easier for owners to to forget about them rather than find a way to dispose of them. Disposal in a landfill, assuming the net owner can even arrange to have the net delivered there, is costly and inconvenient – it is far easier for most people to simply pay the somewhat nominal fee to have their net remain where it has been sitting since it was last used years ago, even if it is far past its useful life span.

Another issue is that most fishers paid a hefty sum for these nets when they were in the prime of their fishing lives – new gillnets can cost upwards of $3,000 – $4,000 and new seine nets can range typically between $80,000 – $120,000 or more, so some still see value in the derelict nets where, in reality, there is none left. The nets may have been worth that in their prime, but neglected and brittle as they are, they have no remaining value. The reality is that some of these nets will never again be used for fishing and the cost of disposing of them at a landfill is often in the thousands of dollars. So even those net owners that realize their nets have no value left are still reluctant to get rid of them, as it will cost them a significant amount of money up front to dispose of them – it is much easier to pay the few hundred dollars per year to store them in situ and forget about them.

For others – those who may not have a place to store their nets – it can be easier to simply discard them on the beach or in the ocean as an absolute last resort, which is of course a major environmental and ecological concern. It’s difficult to imagine this happening here on the coast of British Columbia, but the truth is that the BC Ministry of Environment has already started to see this very phenomenon happening on our coast, mostly due to a lack of realistic alternatives. The unfortunate reality is that across North America, there has never been a reliable, cost effective, environmentally friendly way to dispose of these nets.

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Our recycling program, however, aims to change that – it is centralized, sustainable, and cost neutral to owners of derelict nets and to Steveston Harbour Authority. We are actively attempting to get the word out to owners of old nylon nets that we will accept them and recycle these nets free of charge, eliminating the burden on net owners of yearly storage fees for unused nets and ensuring that the nets do not end up in the marine environment. Most owners of derelict nets, once they have accepted that their nets have no remaining value, and once they know there is an environmentally responsible, cost-neutral way for them to relieve themselves of these nets, tend to eagerly give their nets to us to use in this program. We are also looking to work with other organizations, such as the Northwest Straits Foundation, which aim to remove nets from the ocean, with the goal being that these recovered nets can then be put through our recycling program to eliminate them from the waste stream entirely. 

Okay, so we’ve managed to acquire an old net – what happens next?

Step 2: Stripping and Bagging the Nets

Most nets we receive are full nets, meaning they have all of their components still attached to them: lead line, cork line, bunt, etc. This all needs to be removed from the net, as the nylon6 body web, which makes up the majority of most seine nets, is the material we are currently interested in for this program. Removal of the accoutrement attached to the nylon web is fairly labour intensive, which is where longtime local fisher Brian Veljacic and his partner, Nolan, come in. Brian and Nolan stretch the net out in our seine net repair lane and strip the net down into its various components, separating the nylon web from the lead line, cork line and polypropylene bunt and border web. They then use the power block in the lane to fill super sacks (old grain sacks) with as much nylon as they will hold (typically between 800 and 1000 lbs.). Once a bag is full, they cut the net off, seal the bag, weigh it on a commercial scale and start on the next one.

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The entire process of stripping a seine net, separating out its various components, and bagging the resulting nylon can take anywhere from 2 – 4 days, depending on the size of the net (375 seines being the smallest, 575s the mid range, and 875s the largest). Once the net has been stripped and the nylon bagged, we are then left with the remaining cork line, lead line and polyethylene bunt and border web to deal with. Lead line can be recycled fairly easily, as it can be used in other active nets and there is some value to the lead contained in the line, but the cork line and polyethylene sections are more challenging to repurpose.

Fortunately, we are exploring a relationship with Plastix – a plastic recycling company out of Denmark, which can recycle all kinds of fishing gear, including the polyethylene, polypropylene, cork line, lead line, etc. They can also recycle crab traps, prawn traps, black cod traps, cable, rope and any other type of legitimate fishing gear. There are a great deal of logistical challenges to be worked out, but with our previous experience of shipping the nets to Slovenia at no cost to us, we’re confident we can work out a similar solution.

In the meantime, the cork line that is still in good condition can be re-used in building / repairing other fishing nets and we are actively working with fishers and fishing companies to arrange to have the useable parts recycled in that manner. Finding a use for the rest of the cork line requires some thinking outside the box, but we’re actively exploring other options such as offering them to restaurants and other establishments as decorative pieces and offering them to film companies to use as set decoration items. We are currently stockpiling these extra materials until we work out the details with Plastix.

Great, the nylon is all bagged – what now?

Step 3: Shipping the Nets to be Recycled

Once we have acquired ~ 40 bags of nylon or so, we then make arrangements to have a 40′ sea container dropped off to our site so we can load the bags into it with a pair of forklifts we have here on site. Each bag is weighed by Brian and Nolan as it is filled, and the weight is marked on the outside of each bag with a black Sharpie. A loading ramp (lent by the Canadian Fishing Company) and two forklifts (provided by Steveston Harbour Authority) are then used to stack the bags lengthwise into the container, maximizing use of the available space inside. When loaded properly, a fully loaded container typically carries 40 – 45 bags (38,000 – 40,000 lbs.) of nylon net.

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Once the container has been loaded, it is shipped via container ship to a recycling plant in Europe, as no such facility currently exists in North America. There, the bags are removed from the container, and the nylon emptied into vats to be melted down and recycled into fresh new nylon fibre. This nylon fibre is then used in the manufacture of new high quality nylon products such as carpet tile, swimwear, socks and more. And so we’ve come from a heap of old discarded fishing nets to a series of beautiful new products made from 100% recycled (and further recyclable) materials. In the process, we’ve also relieved some fishers of an economic burden, ensured those discarded nets don’t get dumped in a landfill or discarded in the ocean, and reclaimed valuable harbour uplands that can be used to better service the industry. Everybody wins.

The Future

That’s great for the nets that are here at Steveston Harbour, but what about the rest of the coast? Well, we have several initiatives in the works, but this is the most challenging part of the process. We are aware that once the old unused nets here in Steveston are gone, they’re gone. After that, we have to find a way to sustain the program or the whole thing could lose momentum. To prevent this from occurring, we are actively seeking partners to assist us in this initiative, whether it’s to provide more discarded nets to put into the program, to repurpose or recycle the by-products from the project (lead line, cork line, polyethylene etc.) or to simply spread the word and get more people involved. As of September, 2015 we are the only site in continental North America that is participating actively in a recycling initiative like this. But there are more nets out there – it’s just a matter of spreading the word and finding them. We’ve also been involved in recycling nets that have been recovered from the ocean, as shown in the videos below from a recovery project in April, 2016 near Pender Island, British Columbia.

In January, 2014, Claude Ouimette, Senior V.P. General Manager for Interface Latin America and Canada, attended the Harbour Authority Association of British Columbia (HAABC) conference to make a presentation about this initiative to the largest annual gathering of British Columbia harbour representatives on the west coast of Canada. It is both ours and Claude’s hope that through this type of exposure, this program will gain traction and turn into the kind of success story that Interface’s Net-Works™ was in the Philippines. The only difference here is that the potential market is substantially larger. The potential is immense, but it is essential that we get multiple agencies working together to overcome some of the logistical hurdles to make expansion of this initiative practical and economically viable. We’ve proved that it can be successful here – now it’s time to increase the scale. 

Joel Baziuk, Operations Supervisor at Steveston Harbour Authority and President of the HAABC Board, is trying to further this initiative however possible as well. Progress has been slow but steady, and every step in the right direction is important. If you are interested or would like to assist us, please contact Joel Baziuk at Steveston Harbour Authority at joel@stevestonharbour.com. Together, we can make a difference!