Incorporating post-consumer materials into products has become common practice for numerous brands. But a growing number of companies and NGOs are going a step further, looking to upcycle harmful plastic debris from the ocean, even if it means creating a supply chain and tapping new technology.
Aquafil, a company that makes nylon textile fibers, recently joined the Healthy Seas Initiative to retrieve and recycle nylon fishing nets. The company already is one of the world’s leading recyclers with an insatiable demand for plastic waste.
“We are running (manufacturing plants) seven days a week, for 24 hours a day. It’s not so easy and we need to find lots of waste,” said Maria Giovanna Sandrini, brand manager for Aquafil.
Fishing Nets to Fiber
Creating a system to collect marine debris as a source of new material made the Healthy Seas Initiative an attractive project for Aquafil. The initiative is focused first on fishing nets, which account for one-tenth of all marine litter or about 640,000 tons, according to a joint report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“This plan has the capacity to manage and transform 11,000 tons of waste a year,” Sandrini said.
Aquafil is joining Dutch sock company Star Sock and the ECNC Land & Sea Group to retrieve discarded nylon fishing nets, beginning in three places: the North Sea (Netherlands and Belgium), the Adriatic Sea (Italy, Slovenia and Croatia) and the Mediterranean Sea (Spain).
Once volunteer divers collect the nets, they are shipped to a plant in Slovenia where the waste will be broken down and reconfigured into ECONYL yarn, a high-quality raw material used to create new products, such as socks, swimwear, underwear and carpets.
Harvesting the Floating Trash
Beyond fishing nets, the remainder of marine litter is primarily floating plastic adrift in the ocean currents. UNEP estimated in 2005 that more than 13,000 visible pieces of plastic litter were floating on every square kilometer of ocean.
Last month, green cleaning brand Ecover announced an effort to develop new packaging from recovered ocean plastic. The company is working with Closed Loop Recycling (CLR), a company that turns plastic bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and milk bottles made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) into new food-grade plastic packaging. The collaboration will use waste plastic collected from the seas around the UK by EU fishermen and recycled at Closed Loop’s Dagenham plant.
Meanwhile, Upcycle the Gyres Society (UGS), an NGO with directors from Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa, hopes to prove the profitability of converting marine plastic into fuel such as ENVIROLENE, a higher mixed-alcohol fuel, as well as textiles, 3D printer stock and other valuable resources.
“We know that the plastic-to-oil conversion on land is fine; it’s worked for many years now. It’s just a matter of proving that the marine plastic will have no problem converting to oil and what the quality of that oil will be,” said José Luis Gutiérrez-García, project director for UGS.
UpCycle the Gyres is collaborating with groups such as the Living Oceans Society and Plastic Shore to support collection schemes and helping to develop individual projects to divert plastic from landfills in order to convert it to fuel. But Gutiérrez-García also pictures an independent collection system that would use unmanned drones to collect even micro-plastics without harming plankton or other wildlife and return the waste debris to a large collection ship.
“The challenge is to go out to the oceans and collect enough quantity to make your operations profitable. That’s the most challenging aspect,” he said. With a good collection system, UGS could have a profitable fuel-making operation in two to five years, he said.
The Cost of Cleanup
Sea plastic will ideally become less plentiful, but for now, UNEP puts marine debris — particularly the accumulation of plastics — on par with climate change, ocean acidification and loss of biodiversity as problems of this age. Some 260 species are known to suffer from entanglement or poisoning and since the material can travel around the world, most every corner of the globe is affected.
“We need to find more sources (of recyclable material) of course, but sustainability is a part of our core business,” Sandrini said. With plants in Asia, Europe and North America, Aquafil company leaders want cleanup projects that impact countries around the world, and developing a system to collect waste from the sea does that.
The Healthy Seas Initiative will announce next month its action plan for the next few years. The Healthy Seas collection plan is small now but could set a template for future expansion, said Erik Rozen, StarSock’s director of innovation and sustainability.
“With an initiative like this, your costs primarily are fixed costs, so the more places you are doing this, the lower your fixed costs will be in comparison,” he said.
Rozen said it is more expensive for Star Sock to use the recycled plastic, but the material only accounts for 20 percent of the overall makeup of the sock, so it only boosts the overall cost of the finished project by 1-2 percent, a fairly negligible cost difference.
“We are a family company, and we want to make a better product and a more sustainable product, so we can make our own choices. We are well willing to pay one percent more in our margins and lots of our customers really like this story and want to be a part of it."
“Extra price isn’t always as big of a problem as you think it will be in the beginning of the journey,” Rozen said.