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How old fishing nets could be part of the climate crisis solution

By Paul Glader, CNN

Victoria, Seychelles (CNN) — Kyle de Bouter holds up a pair of Patagonia board shorts made of recycled fishing nets, smiling as workers nearby slice old nylon nets to stack into seven-foot square, one-ton bales.

“This is 100% what it’s all about,” he says, illustrating the future product possibilities.

De Bouter’s company, Brikole, is a startup “circular business” that recycles discarded nets from the industrial tuna fishing industry. He noticed the nets piling up at the main port in this capital city and realized that recycling the discarded products could create a living for himself while also helping to clean up waste and create jobs. He dreamed of employing Seychellois to convert the nets into products such as bags, hammocks or board shorts.

While the United Nations and others are finding some success at prodding large companies from developed countries toward sustainability goals, small and medium businesses in developing countries are hugely important and often overlooked. Researchers note small businesses make up 90% or more of commercial activity and employ a majority of workers worldwide but tend to be less engaged in sustainability. The United Nations notes that only 7.2% of used materials are cycled back into the global economy, declining from 9.1% in 2018.

“We wanted to create as much economic activity for Seychelles as possible,” even with a small, simple business, de Bouter told CNN.

Seychelles, a small nation of roughly 100,000 people in the Indian Ocean, boasts 1.3 million square kilometers of marine territory surrounding its archipelago of 115 islands. Seychelles leaders and institutions are constantly looking for ways to counteract climate change and foster development on their islands. Since the area is prime for fishing, especially tuna fishing, many in Seychelles believe those industries are a good place to start.

Finding a net positive

Roughly 48 tuna ships from several countries – including Spain, France and South Korea – fish the waters of the Seychelles, using massive nets that pull in more than 400,000 metric tons of tuna and unload around 62,000 metric tons of tuna for canning at a factory in the Victoria port each year. Only the tourism sector contributes more to GDP than tuna. Government sources and researchers say the tuna industry provides more than 5% of GDP and around 68% of total exports.

The mile-long nylon nets, which periodically wear out, piled up at the shipyards and created litter.

De Bouter says government ministers, the fishing industry and the port authority understood the need to fix the problem and “were instrumental in their vocal support” of his seemingly simple project when it hit operational roadblocks.

A blue economy idea

Given its location, the Seychelles is embracing the idea of the “blue economy,” which the World Bank defines as “sustainable use of ocean resources to benefit economies, livelihoods and ocean ecosystem health.” The United Nations estimates the blue economy to be worth more than $1.5 trillion per year globally, employing more than 30 million and feeding more than 3 billion people a year.

Seychelles has a governmental “Department of Blue Economy,” which has roadmaps to guide ocean use and development. Small island nations like Seychelles face unique vulnerabilities as they depend on the ocean for survival but also face impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels, changing rainfall patterns and acid damage to coral reefs.

Advocates of circular economy business models say the approach inspires small countries and industries to become more sustainable and more innovative. “In a circular economy, products and materials are kept in circulation through processes like maintenance, reuse, refurbishment, remanufacture, recycling, and composting,” says the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “The circular economy tackles climate change and other global challenges, like biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution, by decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources.”

The United Nations notes that more circular use of concrete, steel, plastics and aluminum could help reduce global greenhouse gas emission by 40% by 2050. It points to examples in Kosovo, Ghana and the Philippines to create circular economy models.

Sylvanna Antat, who directs the Blue Economy Research Institute at the University of Seychelles, says although the island has added some support for entrepreneurs, it has room to grow. She and others want to see an incubator formed to offer space for young entrepreneurs.

“Small island states are on the frontline of the blue economy,” wrote Seychelles’ former president James Alix Michel’s wrote in a local paper, The Nation, in October. Michel had raised the alarm in past years that some of Seychelles’ uninhabited islands could disappear and is part of COP 28 this month in Dubai. He championed activity by “inventive young entrepreneurs” to improve society, mentioning recycled fishing nets as one example.

Slowed by snags

Originally, de Bouter wanted to recycle the nets and produce nylon products within Seychelles. That would mean obtaining, moving, washing, drying and shredding the nets and putting them through an extruder to make nylon pellets that could be turned into fabric and other products. He soon realized the host of limitations he faced. Electricity for companies in Seychelles can be three times the cost in western countries. High rent costs and irregular supplies of nets creates additional hurdles.

De Bouter started partnering with tuna fishing industry associations in Spain and France, meaning companies and ship captains from those countries operating in the Seychelles waters are encouraged to donate their discarded nets to Brikole.

“This is solving the problem of exhausted fishing nets,” said Julio Morón, a managing director of the Spanish tuna fishing organization called OPAGAC. In exchange for receiving the donated nets, Brikole agrees to keep Seychelles workers employed and to list fishing companies from France and Spain as sponsors.

As de Bouter gained nets to process, he didn’t want to send the recycled nylon to China because of environmental, labor and transparency concerns. Eventually, he found a company called Bureo, based in California, that focuses on the problem of 18 billion pounds of plastic dumped into the ocean each year, aiming to remove what it sees as the most harmful form of plastic – fishing nets – from the oceans.

So after de Bouter’s team collects the nets, cuts them up and ships them to Bureo in Chile, the latter company turns the fishing nets into nylon pellets and then turns those into its “NetPlus” material used in fabrics, sunglasses and other products from brands such as Patagonia, Yeti and Trek.

With Brikole recycling more than 500 tons of fishing nets last year, Seychelles could contribute a growing percentage – as much as 25% in the future – of Bureo’s total current nylon production according to Sigren. As a result, Bureo said it plans to set up a nylon processing center in Africa or Asia within the next two years so nets can be processed regionally rather than shipped across oceans.

The nylon industry rakes in $31 billion in revenues annually for companies such as DuPont, BASF, and DOMO Chemicals, according to Grandview Research, and is poised to grow at 5% per year. The work of Brikole and Bureo suggests that more of that revenue could be driven by recycled nylon rather than newly produced nylon.

Next steps for Brikole

When tuna companies alert him of nets for donation, de Bouter rents a crane and other equipment to move the nets to his workspace near the shipyards. His six workers untangle the nets and use sharpened kitchen knives to slice them into 2 by 3-meter panels.

On a recent sunny day in the concrete courtyard behind Brikole’s warehouse office, Joshua Tiatousse was busy cutting nylon nets while standing barefoot on the concrete and listening to reggae music on his headphones.

“A friend told me” about the job said Tiatousse, 19.

When de Bouter receives nylon fabric samples from Bureo made entirely from the nylon nets Brikole procured, he plans to send the fabrics to a local art and design school to have students come up with ideas for products, providing local creative input into the final products that partners produce.

“It will be a demonstration project to show the nation and world what is possible,” he said. “We would like to say this is made from Seychelles.”

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