Taking up the challenge of recycling marine litter?
What to do with the hundreds of tonnes of end-of-life plastic waste collected from rivers, the sea and beaches? It is possible to recycle it, even if it is not easy because most of the time it is soiled, mixed and degraded. The result is that clothing and footwear manufacturers have been able to turn the waste into particularly fashionable items.
PET bottles and fishing nets: a not so unusual combination
Many brands now advertise that they make their products from recycled marine plastic waste. Most of the time, the products are made from fibres from PET bottles collected on land and from fibres from recycled nets.
In Spain, for example, the designers of Seaqual use a traditional manufacturing process based on mechanical recycling. Thanks to their partnership with more than 2,500 fishermen (from 450 trawlers) in some thirty ports in the Mediterranean, they collect fishing gear recovered at sea or that has simply fallen out of use. Around ten percent of their Seaqual thread is composed of polymers from marine nets, the rest being recycled PET most often from bottles collected on land... before they reach the sea. The thread is mainly found in the clothing and footwear of the Ecoalf brand (see our articles ...) and in many brands of clothing, footwear, furniture, decoration and even automotive equipment.
A partnership with 2,500 Mediterranean fishermen allows the Spanish company Seaqual 4U to collect used nets. They will be recycled into a new fibre with almost identical properties to those of conventional polyester.
The international company Adidas, thanks to its partnership with Parley for the Ocean, an international non-profit organisation, can claim to have given birth to a new model. Parley organises the collection of end-of-life plastics through private individuals who are paid for their work, thus providing employment for many people, mostly in developing countries. Most of the plastic is collected from shorelines or fishing nets that fishermen collect from the oceans. Once sorted, they are transformed into new fibres in various factories, the main one being in Taiwan in Asia.
Five years ago, Adidas launched a new pair of sneakers partially made from recycled fishing nets.
They produce Parley Ocean Plastic®, a polyester fibre developed by Parley. Five years ago, Adidas created a specific product range from this material, called X Parley. It was an immediate success and by 2020, 15 million pairs of shoes had been made from these regenerated plastics. The brand has now announced that nearly 600 of its products incorporate fibres from plastics collected at sea and recycled through the association.
However, it is necessary to qualify the statement because for the moment, the brand with the three stripes does not yet produce items made from 100% recycled plastics (whether or not they come from marine litter). However, it is a goal that it has set for itself in the very short term, as it hopes to achieve it by 2024. As for the X shoes, they are only partially made of fibres from used nets. The fibres make up the cage that attractively adorns the upper of the shoe. In a nod to the fibres’ origin, the cage is woven in the pattern of fishing nets.
100% made from fishing nets
However, some manufacturers produce items made entirely of plastic from used nets. The American company Bureo recovers used fishing nets in South America to make a fibre called NetPlus©. To achieve this, Bureo has set up containers in various South American fishing ports where fishermen can dispose of their used nets.
Once recovered, Bureo converts them using a classic mechanical recycling process.
The operation is quite tedious: the nets have to be dismantled, the ropes have to be removed manually to sort them out as they are usually made of polyester whereas the net is made of polyamide, they have to be checked visually almost mesh by mesh, then cut and cleaned.
The installation of large containers in ports for the recovery of end-of-life nets is a simple and effective initiative that is developing worldwide.
They are then ground and granulated before being extruded to make a thread that can be woven again. This new material is now used in the visors of some Patagonia caps.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Fil & Lab, a young start-up located in Brittany, has successfully made use of its patented recycling process which converts the polyamide found - among other things - in end-of-life fishing nets into "a high-performance and responsible plastic" that it has called Nylo.
Before becoming glasses sold by eyewear manufacturer Acuitis and clothing manufacturer Armor Lux, these fishing nets were collected in some forty ports on the French Atlantic coast, then stored in the skips of a Breton port. After long hours of cleaning and dismantling, they were converted, again using a classic mechanical recycling process, into ready-to-use polyamide 6 granules.
Econyl: fishing nets set course for infinity
The Italian company Aquafil, known worldwide for its production of polyamide (Nylon 6), has developed a highly sophisticated programme for regenerating the nylon contained in used fishing nets abandoned in the oceans. For its production, Aquafil also uses other types of polyamide waste, such as old carpets, textile waste, etc. Thanks to a chemical recycling process by glycolysis*, the waste is regenerated into a new fibre, Econyl, which has the same qualities as "virgin" nylon. It can be used to manufacture textiles in an endless loop, with no loss of quality. Aquafil has set itself the goal of collecting all the clothes made from the fibre in order to recycle them again. According to the Italian company, the fibres recycled in this way require a less labour-intensive manufacturing process than the traditional process using virgin fibres. The company claims that this has helped to reduce its energy and water consumption and, above all, its CO2 emissions by 55%.
* Plastics are made up of a long chain of molecules (monomers) that repeat themselves. This chain is called a polymer. Depolymerisation is a chemical recycling process that allows the polymer chain to be broken down to the base monomer. Glycolysis uses glycol as a reagent to break down polymers.
Ever greener threads on the catwalk
While these new sustainable fibres initially appealed to sports and ready-to-wear brands such as Adidas, Levi's and H&M, they are now being embraced by luxury fashion houses. Whether Gucci, Stella McCartney, Burberry, or Prada, the world of fashion is turning ethical and favours these recycled and eco-friendly fibres for its avant-garde and innovative collections.
Many brands offer items made from recycled polymers, many of which come from the oceans. Even the most prestigious brands are now on board.
Stella McCartney, in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, sells swimming costumes made from a mixture of lycra and polyamide from fishing nets, Tom Ford has been selling a luxury watch for a few months now, which he says is made from 35 bottles recovered from the ocean, and Gucci and Prada are using them for handbags.
The same trend is appearing in the automotive world, with Mercedes and Jaguar Land Rover announcing their intention to fit the interiors of their cars with the Econyl eco-friendly nylon.
Flip-flops to raise awareness and get off on the right foot
Since the sixties, flip-flops have never fallen out of fashion, and have become a victim of their own success. Thousands of them can be found on the coasts of the Indian Ocean and the shores of the great African lakes. The Kenyan initiative Flipflopi aims to convert this waste into a resource. It has built a dhow - traditionally a wooden boat with a trapezoidal sail - from almost 30,000 flip-flops collected from the beaches. They cover the hull, which is made from 7 tonnes of different types of plastic waste, also collected from the beaches. This colourful vessel, also called Flipflopi, is travelling the coasts of the Indian Ocean and has just completed a tour of Lake Victoria, one of the most polluted lakes in Africa. The aim of the trip is to raise awareness of good waste management and to promote recycling initiatives by showing that end-of-life plastics can become great resources.
For the record, it all started about twenty years ago with a young biologist who decided to collect these abandoned flip-flops. The latter were handed to local artists who converted the waste into colourful and poetic sculptures. The young biologist founded the company Ocean Sole, which now distributes Twiga the giraffe and Kifaru the rhinoceros around the world. It is those same sculptures that inspired the founders of Flipflopi.
In Kenya, a dhow was made entirely from recycled polymers, including 30,000 flip-flops. The Flipflopi travels from village to village to raise awareness of good waste management.
So there is every reason to be optimistic, because things are moving forward if you consider that humanity has only been tackling the issue of marine waste for a little over 10 years.
Links to articles from PlM dedicated to marine waste
Ecoalf: the pioneer of ethical fashion stays one step ahead of the competition
From fishing net to skateboard
Econyl, a nylon thread made from plastic waste
Flipflopi: a 100% recycled boat celebrating the fight against plastic waste
From flip flop to work of art