In the fight against plastic, great attention has been paid to the terrestrial waste that finds its way to our oceans through landfill and littering. Schemes around the world have targeted disposable waste ranging from plastic straws to coffee cups, and now even supermarket packaging is being overhauled with biodegradable alternatives. But what about the plastic designed for use in our oceans? Once taken out to sea, it’s easy to lose track of the plastic nets and ropes used in commercial and small-scale fishing voyages and once discarded, this detritus poses one of the most significant threats to marine life.
So called ‘ghost gear’ - nets and other equipment that are either lost or abandoned - have been identified as items of ‘particular concern’ as part of the European Directive on Single-Use Plastics. Finding sustainable alternatives is a priority for cleaning up our oceans, and while it’s a market still in development, there are some companies on the cusp of revolutionising the marine plastic industry.
The plastic problem
Ghost nets currently contribute 640,000 tonnes of marine waste every year. A 2019 Greenpeace report found that in total, abandoned fishing nets and gear make up 10% of the plastic waste in the sea - endangering marine life and ecosystems around them as it brings with it the risk of entanglement, as well as also leaching toxins into the surrounding water. Most modern nets are made of nylon or other plastic compounds, and given the length of time needed for these materials to break down the problem is one that lingers on in our oceans for decades.
Most recently, abandoned nets were retrieved from coral reefs in the Gulf of Thailand in what was a two day operation involving forty divers. The nets - which were discovered in the protected area around Ko Losin - were found to have caused bleaching along the coral it had draped across, and had reportedly been left in the province for a month and a half. In Hawaii, a hotline has been setup to report sightings of ghost nets, with any abandoned gear to be taken to Hawaii Pacific University’s Center for Marine Debris Research. The Center is working on sending ghost gear back to where it originated.
While necessary, these efforts only remedy the symptoms of the problem - not the cause. To effectively and significantly reduce ghost gear, developing biodegradable alternatives to traditional plastic fishing equipment is an imperative. And it is a market that is seeing some traction.
Traditional nylon nets are still more cost effective than their biodegradable counterparts, but research and development schemes are emerging around the world that are seeking to change this, with companies turning to organic materials to create ocean-friendly nets.
One such company is SEALIVE - a €10.26 million European Union Horizon 2020-funded Innovation Action project set up to reduce plastic pollution and boost uptake of biomaterials and bio-plastics. Under the scheme, researchers have developed bio-based fishing nets made from micro-algae and other organic materials.
Prototypes of the sustainable nets are currently being tested by local fishermen in Paphos, Cyprus. For the project, SEALIVE is partnering with the NGO AKTI Project and Research Centre, as well as the environmental research and consultancy ISOTECH Ltd. Results from the pilot test - which is set to last for 12 months - will help to evaluate the efficacy and operability of the nets, and inform the project’s next steps. Samples have also been sent to partners Cittadini and Seabird in France, who will use them to design the new biodegradables nets. These will themselves also be sent to Cyprus for testing once completed.
Commenting on the event, AKTI representative Anna Tselepou said “We are proud to work with our local and international partners to develop better, more sustainable ways of protecting our oceans. Fishing has always been important to Cyprus and we are working to enable and support our fishermen to move to more environmentally friendly practices that will protect our marine heritage for generations to come.”
In addition to creating these compostable nets, SEALIVE will reportedly work to support and establish infrastructure to help collect old nets. The company is also working on eight other bio-based plastic solutions in other industries, such as agriculture.
Other marine waste solutions
SEALIVE is not the only company seeking to break ahead in the sustainable marine plastics sector. A new centre for research-based innovation, dubbed DSOLVE, is being established at the University of Tromsø in Norway. The new centre was established to investigate more eco-friendly solutions to plastic fishing gear, and the researchers will be conducting tests comparing biodegradable plastic materials with conventional polymers.
Other initiatives have also been established to recycle and reuse waste plastics pulled from the oceans.
One such company is California-based Bureo, which melts recycled fishing gear and remoulds it to make plastic pellets. These are in turn used to make new consumer products such as skateboards, sunglasses and toys. The company also provides its pellets to other companies to make their own goods - with one company called HumanScale using a kilogram of Burero’s plastic to make its office chair. Burero currently has 26 fishing communities throughout Chile involved in sourcing the abandoned gear, and since 2013 the company has seen 185 tonnes of waste nets collected.
While the danger of ghost gear is a severe one, the new spotlight on growing tides of plastic means that investment and research into targeting the problem are on the up. With rapid technological advancements making sustainable alternatives more viable, the next step is to bring these products into commercial use, and make them economically competitive with traditional nylon models. While the issue has not yet been solved, such industry developments imply the sector may be headed to clearer waters.