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Turtle in 'ghost net'. Photo: NOAA News.
Turtle in 'ghost net'. Photo: NOAA News.
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Killer 'ghost nets' to carpet tiles

Roisin Woolnough

24th November 2013

Ghost nets - nylon fishing nets abandoned in the ocean - are the sea life killers that keep on killing. Roisin Woolnough reports on the Healthy Seas initiative to transform the ghost nets into useful products from socks and swimwear to carpet tiles.

Our aim is to clean the seas from the waste that is on the seabeds or entangled in shipwrecks and transform them into yarn and then into products.

There are roughly 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing nets - widely known as 'ghost nets' - in the oceans. That figure accounts for one tenth of all marine waste, according to research by the United Nations. But these numbers are probably conservative, says Paul Rose, vice president of the Royal Geographical Society, a diver, explorer and expert on marine life.

"Those numbers are the best we can get but they could be a long way off and the actual ones are likely to be in the wrong direction", he says. "I have been diving since 1969 and there's a lot more plastic and a lot less fish now."

When fishing nets are left in the oceans, they wreak havoc with marine life and the ecosystem. The nets stay in the marine ecosystem for hundreds of years and accidentally trap fish, lobsters, dolphins, turtles, seals, birds and other animals. Once those animals are trapped, they die. This creates what is known as ghostfishing - when derelict fishing gear continues to fish.

Then there are the chemicals used in the manufacturing process of many of the fishing nets used today. If the nets are left in the sea then those chemicals seep into the ecosystem and are ingested by those living in or near the sea.

It is not just marine life that suffers though. Ultimately, this plastic ends up back in the food chain. "When plastic goes into the sea it breaks down over many many years", says Rose. "Fish and seabirds pick the bits up and if it's in the fish and the birds, then it ends up in us too."

In order to combat this situation of ghostfishing, an initiative has been launched to retrieve abandoned fishing nets, get them out of the seas and turn them into yarn that can then be turned into products. Called Healthy Seas, it's the brainchild of three organisations, Aquafil, ECNC Land & Sea Group and Star Sock.

"Nets don't belong on the ocean bed", says Pascal van Erp, a diver working for the sustainability organisation, ECNC Land & Sea Group. "We should remove all nets we can find on the sea bed." Van Erp says he had been working on a project recovering abandoned fishing nets from the North Sea for three years before Healthy Seas was formed.

"That project was about the removal of nets and we really cleared up a lot of shipwrecks and reef locations. As a diver, you see a lot of terrible things - all kinds of animals entangled in the nets. We removed the nets and then dumped them in the trash."

Instead of throwing the nets into landfill or paying to have them incinerated, as had been happening, it was decided that they should be reused. "We wanted to complete the cycle from removing nets to using them as well", says van Erp.

This is where Aquafil comes in. Aquafil produces a yarn called ECONYL, made from regenerated waste such as disused fishing nets, textiles and carpet fluff. It also has a huge chemical plant in Slovenia which could be used to regenerate more waste. The yarn can be used for all sorts of products, such as socks, carpets, swimwear, underwear bags and ski wear.

"Our aim is to clean the seas from the waste that is on the seabeds or entangled in shipwrecks and transform them into yarn and then into products", says Maria Giovanna Sandrini, ECONYL brand and communications manager at Aquafil.

Dutch company, Star Sock, is the third partner in Healthy Seas and it uses ECONYL in its socks. "Why do we think this is important?" asks Erik Rozen, director of innovation and sustainability at Star Sock.

"The problems in our seas are obvious - it being plastic soup, ghostfishing and the chemical pollution. We have to do things to solve these problems. What we are doing enable us to direct a part of the large power that businesses can have towards doing something good."

Rozen thinks the environmental need for waste to wear products is very strong. He also thinks there is a strong consumer demand for such products.

The Healthy Seas divers are now using specialised machines to help get the nets on board and can recover six to 10 tons a day. So far, the scheme has mostly concentrated its efforts in the Netherlands but it wants to broaden its scope further. It has already carried out scouting activities in the Adriatic, around Croatia, Italy and Slovenia, in the Baltic coast and in the Mediterranean Sea around Spain.

"We would like to replicate the scheme in other areas and eventually would like to do it in the US and Asia as well", says Sandrini. Other companies are also showing an interest, including Interface, the world's largest maker of carpet tiles. With its strong commitment to sustainability Interface has recently signed up to Healthy Seas.

There is also a drive to get the fishing community on board and engage them with cleaning up the oceans. At the moment, fishermen have to pay to dispose of their nets in landfill or to have them incinerated. As a result, many dump them in the ocean instead.

The Healthy Seas partners would like fishermen to give them their nets, rather than dump them, and will pay for nets that are still in good condition. "They have no use for their used fishing nets and have to pay to get rid of them", says Rozen. "We would like to take them instead."

Rose thinks schemes such as Healthy Seas are vital in order to protect our oceans. He says we know very little about the oceans, but we do know that we are having a big impact on them.

"We shouldn't use the oceans as a bottomless pit for our waste. We are having an enormously negative effect on our oceans so schemes like this that try to address that effect and raise awareness are great."

Roisin Woolnough is a journalist with 20 years' experience of writing on a wide range of issues, including sustainability, workplace issues and social care issues. She has written for The Guardian, Financial Times, Computer Weekly, Personnel Today, Ecotextile News and many other publications.



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