A sea change for recycling

As the devastating consequences of marine litter become increasingly clear, Annie Reece heads to Slovenia to find out more about the Healthy Seas initiative, which aims to close the loop and protect the environment


Looking around the beautiful Slovenian bay of Piran, you wouldn’t think that anything fishy was going on. But look closer, and you may just catch a glimpse of several floating buoys closely lined next to one another – the only visible landmark of Fonda Fish Farm. The sustainable fishery – which claims to sell the world’s most expensive sea bass, the Piran Sea Bass (hand fed and allowed to grow to adulthood – around nine years old) – is one of several organisations participating in the Healthy Seas project, a new initiative that aims to remove waste, in particular fishing nets and other marine litter, from the seas for recycling into textile products.

A unique collaboration of manufacturers, NGOs, and retailers, the ‘The Healthy Seas – a Journey from Waste to Wear’ project was set up by nylon polymer manufacturer Aquafil, sock company StarSock, and NGO the European Centre for Nature Conservation Land & Sea Group (ECNC), to close the loop and protect the environment. Now several more companies, including Fonda Fish Farm, have joined to help realise a vision of sustainable consumption and conservation.

It’s at this fish farm (and at several other marine locations around the world) that the first step of the project is taking place: the recovery of fishing nets. Bubbling under the surface of the water, a diver is connecting a nearby boat’s crane winch onto an old fishing net, which is slowly pulled aboard (pictured). Although nets on land may weigh only between 150-200 kilogrammes, once wet and full of marine life, they can reach up to seven tonnes. In this case, only a few mussels have to be freed from the net (by means of cutting a hole at the base as it hangs), but on the whole, it’s in pretty good nick. That’s partly due to the sustainability policy set up by Fonda’s Managing Director, Irene Fonda, which involves washing and sewing up any holes in the nets to extend their life (on average, fishing nets come to their end-of-life after three years). 

But many fishing businesses (and fishermen) aren’t as scrupulous. The United Nations Environment Programme has estimated that there are about 640,000 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets (‘ghost’ nets) in the oceans, accounting for one-tenth of all marine litter. It’s this marine litter that has a devastating effect on the health of the seas, and on the animals that live in it. “Say a fisherman has 25 kilometres of filament net – due to wear and tear, he would need to replace it every three to six months. In general, nets will last a total of two to three years maximum”, says Dr Heather Koldeway, Head of Global Programmes and International Marine & Freshwater Programme Manager at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). “Where do these nets end up? A lot of the time, they’re just left, or dumped, in the sea. The problem is that there is a cost to dispose of nets, but leaving them in the sea, out of sight, is free. But this has a huge cost to the environment.” Indeed, Koldeway says that around 130,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are caught in nets every year, 40,000 seals die every year after playing with nets, and coral reefs are smothered by them, before eventually dying. 

ZSL is now working with fishing communities in the Philippines to recover these ghost nets for recycling at Aquafil’s new regeneration plant in Ljubljana, Slovenia. For every two kilometres of net found, the Philippine collectors are given one kilogramme of rice. “It’s not a lot, but it makes a difference”, Koldeway adds. The Healthy Seas project is also recovering ghost nets for Aquafil in three pilot regions in Europe: the North Sea (Netherlands and Belgium), the Adriatic Sea (Italy, Slovenia and Croatia) and the Mediterranean Sea (Spain). 

Once cleaned of debris, the nets are dried (preferably away from populated areas – the smell is stomach-turning), and sent to Aquafil’s waste collection and treatment centre, based in Ajdovscina, Slovenia. Here, they are sorted into material types; what Aquafil is after is Nylon 6 (PA6), identified by a hand-held infrared gun. (However, it is hoped that by next year, all nets coming from the Healthy Seas collectors will be sorted before arriving at the Ajdovscina site). According to Aquafil, PA6 is the best nylon polymer for regeneration, as other variants, such as PA6,6, are made up of two different molecules, and cannot be converted back into a raw material with the same quality once transformed. 

After identification, the PA6 nets are stripped of any foreign materials (such as rope, plastic, and metals, which are sent for recycling or recovery in other supply chains), before the nylon net is shredded, compacted, bagged, and transported to Aquafil’s 24-hour depolymerisation plant in Ljubljana. It’s here that the regeneration process begins.

Although Aquafil’s actual depolymerisation process is a well-guarded secret (for competitive edge), in general, a depolymerisation process can involve dissolving nylon in high-pressure steam (over 150 degrees Celsius) and then continuously hydrolysing the material in steam (and sometimes an acidic catalyst, such as phosphoric acid) at around 350 degrees Celsius, to form caprolactam monomers. These are then purified before being polymerised in exactly the same way virgin caprolactam is made into PA6. Around 80 per cent of the inputs are made into Aquafil’s regenerated PA6 yarn – called ECONYL® – with the remaining 20 per cent (such as pigments and other plastics) going to the local energy-from-waste plant.

The ‘radically new’ purification process has been developed so that it utilises much less water and energy than the virgin equivalent, whilst reaching an identical, if not better, level of quality: Aquafil estimates that for every 1,000 tonnes of ECONYL produced, 3,136 barrels of oil are saved from virgin production. “We’re not just melting the polyamide, but completely breaking it down to its chemical components”, Giulio Bonazzi, Chief Executive Officer of Aquafil, says. Indeed, as the plastic is stripped back to its bare bones, it can then be ‘purified’ before being repolymerised, “making a nylon of much higher quality than was present in the input”, he adds.

Lucija Aleksic, Aquafil’s Sustainability Compliance Manager is reluctant to divulge any details of the process, but tells me that through the technique, carbon dioxide emissions are twice as low as when producing PA6 with virgin polymers, and the process energy is three times lower (the actual figures were not disclosed). As well as saving carbon, the company is diverting waste from landfill through the regeneration of PA6 – it reportedly reclaimed 16,000 tonnes of pre- and post-consumer waste in 2011/12, producing more than 12,000 tonnes of ECONYL. It now regenerates around 320 tonnes of ghost nets, and 1,200 tonnes of nylon waste (such as carpet fluff, post-industrial waste, and rigid fabrics) a month to produce two types of ECONYL yarn: nylon textile filament (NTF) for clothing, and bulk continuous filament (BCF) for carpet manufacture.

A lot of time, and money, has gone into creating Aquafil’s ECONYL. The company first started looking into producing recycled nylon in 2008, when it opened its Energy and Recycling division. According to Aquafil General Manager, Fabrizio Calenti, the move was a natural step to take given the increasing pressure on business to use more sustainable resources and less virgin materials. “We’re working on this now, as it is quite possible that in the next 10 years, all businesses will need to be using sustainable and recyclable materials… by then, we’ll have had a decade of experience, and be leading the way in terms of recycled nylon production”, he tells me.

The company claims that, until recently, commercial depolymerisation had been deemed too costly to be viable, as only small quantities of nylon 6 could be recovered, and large amounts of waste were produced. Indeed, Aquafil has spent around €20 million (£17 million) on the researchand development, design, and building of the chemical system and depolymerisation plant. (However, the waste coming to Aquafil now has been rigorously tested, and the supply chain educated on what the company is looking for, to ensure that the inputs have 90-95 per cent polyamide content). 

Despite the initial outlay of money, it’s hoped that the quality of the product, and the sustainable nature of the Healthy Seas project, will help deliver a high return on investment. “The problem at first was keeping everything cost effective”, Calenti says. “From collecting the nets, cleaning them, transporting them, storing and processing them, there’s a lot of cost involved. But the transportation costs are a tiny fraction of the product’s environmental footprint, and the end product is absolutely worth it.” (Aquafil estimates that the CO2 footprint forms less than two per cent of the product’s overall footprint). 

The company now sells around 1,000 tonnes of ECONYL a month to a range of textile and carpet manufacturers, including sports brands Adidas and Koru, car manufacturer BMW (for interior carpets) and, of course, Healthy Seas partner, StarSock (StarSock’s ‘Healthy Seas’ socks made from ECONYL are expected to come onto the market in 2014). Although ECONYL currently makes up only around 15 per cent of the Aquafil’s total production, it aims to move to 100 per cent ECONYL in the future.

This article was taken from Issue 74

“Our goal is to manufacture products that are not only entirely made of regenerated material, but are fully and endlessly regenerable, too”, Maria Sandrini, Aquafil’s Corporate Communications Manager, tells me. “If we can see more products being designed with ECONYL, or at least designed with end remanufacture in mind, we can not only close the loop, but continually produce new material without ever having to use more virgin resources.” Aquafil has now started talking to fishing net manufacturers to see if they will design nets with end-of-life in mind, or better yet, nets from ECONYL, which can be infinitely recycled.

As well as the recovery and regeneration process, the Healthy Seas project hopes to identify procedures that will help deter the abandonment of fishing nets at sea and is working with fisheries to encourage responsible end-of-life handling. It also hopes that the project will highlight the damage ghost nets cause to our seas, and trigger governments to produce legislation making it a fisherman’s responsibility to bring back nets to the shore for disposal.

In addition, a ‘Healthy Seas Fund’ will be established with the goal of removing abandoned fishing nets from the oceans, raising awareness of the problem, and financing local projects that support the objectives of the Healthy Seas initiative.

Looking to the future, Aquafil aims to expand its operations by building a washing plant, and by working to separate elastane from nylon so that more clothes can be regenerated (only PA6 with less than 10 per cent elastane can be recycled without the the quality of the product being affected). Aleksic concludes: “We’re still working on the process, but we know that our product is not only as good as virgin PA6, but also has a wonderful back story that people can sympathise with. This will be our success.”