Recycling abandoned fishnets with sustainability in mind

Sherry Chang, graduate of the product design program at Kwantlen’s Wilson School of Design. | Photo courtesy of Kwantlen Polytechnic University

More than 640,000 tonnes of commercial fishing gear is abandoned, lost or discarded in oceans annually in the world, according to the jointly issued report by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN Environment Program (UNEP). That makes up to 10 per cent of oceanic litter.

Abandoned fishing gear has become a global problem. Derelict nets are referred to as “ghost gear” or they are sometimes called Abandoned, Lost, or Discarded Fishing Gear (ALDFG). According to Earth Island Journal, about 50 or 60 years ago, nets were commonly made from biodegradable hemp or cotton. Synthetic, degrade-resistant materials such as nylon nets now can last up to 600 years.

Recycling discarded fishing nets

Sherry Chang graduated from the product design program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s (KPU) Wilson School of Design in spring 2017. She wants to address this widespread problem by keeping fishing nets from being discarded and recycling them into useable products. She experimented with polyethylene fishing nets by melting the material at different temperatures. Her instructor, Victor Martinez, was impressed with Chang’s project.

“She explored the possibilities of this material for a posterior life. What can you do with this material in very simple processes that do not get the cost too high and you can have an economic benefit and possible market opportunity?” says Martinez. “She created at the very end a very nice material guide for designers and other people interested in using the material.”

Sherry Chang researches how to recycle ghost fishing gear into reusable products. | hoto courtesy of Kwantlen Polytechnic University

Looking for sustainable design solutions

Chang first became interested in this field after she saw a video on Facebook. She saw a few volunteers getting ready to dive into the water with tools, bags and cameras. In the video, she saw many large discarded fishing nets sitting on the seabed; some of them entangled marine species, and some of them got entangled by other discarded fishing nets.

“After these volunteers carried the bags out of the sea, they described how fishing nets in the oceans have caused lots of problems. The materials of fishing nets are strong, so they could cut into the fish’s skins, and some of them struggled to death trying to escape the lost nets,” says Chang. “There were many beautiful and colourful coral reefs that were covered by huge fishing nets, which were damaging the ecosystem around it.

“The oceans always looked amazing in the movies and on television, but in reality, they are not. I want to know more about this issue and explore this field. I believe there are solutions to reduce the harm done to our oceans and environment.”

While Chang was studying atKwantlen Polytechnic University, she came up with sustainable design solutions that are also marketable for local and global economies.

She notes that collecting the lost fishing nets in the oceans is hard because they are barely visible, so talking to fishing authorities, fishers, and related organizations would help her to solve this problem in the first stage.

“I would like to talk to manufacturers and see if there are more possibilities to reuse this material. Moreover, feedback from end customers is important, so it would be beneficial to know how likely they would be to use products made of recycled fishing nets,” Chang says.

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