In the winter 2017, the sand level uncovered a large net at the end of Balnakeil Bay. Plastic@Bay was not even an idea, we had no vehicles, we only had some community cleans and were thinking about how to deal with all that plastic. For us, this net is a combination of all the wrongs and the rights we are trying to make out of ocean plastic pollution.
At the beginning, January 2018, it was pretty rustic, a rucksack, some ton bags and tools, 7km round trip with a ton bag full each time coming back. The net was buried under a dune, you could not see the bottom of it. We just cut what was coming out so that nothing would get entangled in it. So bits by bits we thought we were getting it out.
It quickly became clear that it was much bigger than we expected. Spread over a 100m of the beach or so, we purchased divers knife especially recommended to cut ghost gear. We spent many days chopping it up.
At the time, we just realised how much plastic was washing up and being buried in the sand. We started trying to find way of reusing it. Nearly everyone in Durness has nets in their garden for different usage. They are part of the landscape. These were goals we made for the indoor hockey sessions we participated in.
A year later, we got funding for the Plastic Lab and a vehicle. Things changed, we started recycling plastic we collected. We were told it would not work which was strange and the first thing we did is of course — Melt the Net! — The very first prototype of tile made in the lab in May 2019 was made with the exact same net we had been digging for more than a year.
The first prototyping in spring 2019
People started to be intrigued by reusing the nets we were finding on the shore, in particular people from other areas of the west coast and islands in the same situation as us. At the time, we made a few large blocks for people to work with. Some turned it, other made knives with it. The properties of this plastic was not really clear to us and we first assumed that it was polypropylene based on the behaviour of the plastic in the oven. Turned out that one of our customer tested it and they are made of HDPE with a special formulation.
During that time, the dig of the net continued, our rangers, one after another were at it. Each time the storms were digging in the dune system, they could reach deeper. At some point, in early February 2020, the net got almost entirely free from the sand by a particular storm. And in 2 days, we could take the whole of it by dragging it in the trailer. By the time we had collected several hundred kilograms of that particular net.
Nets that have been buried like this are very heavy because full of sand in their matrix. Mechanically washing these nets was way beyond what we could and wanted to do. Noticing how clean some fragments of nets could be if left to the elements, we concluded that maybe it wasn’t worth spending a lot of energy when you are battered by the wind and the rain in winter. We did some test, hanging the nets in the trees, then we started renting a bunker with no roof in the area. The nets would be cuts and exposed to the rain and wind for more than a year. Once the sand is nearly completely gone, we can start thinking about preparing it for recycling. Click here to see how we do it.
The net was progressively cut, dried and shredded for storage. We tested it for recycling in the Precious Plastic machines we develop and started recycling it.
Many other groups were interested in testing actual ghost gear. A lot of #greenwashing is going around ocean plastic. You can find “ocean bound” plastic (basically any plastic in the long run), dodgy cleanup companies in far-flung countries and all kind of similar things. Many profit that people want to help by buying their products made of plastic actually coming from the sea. When you have spent most of your energy trying to do exactly that for 5 years, it is a bit frustrating to observe such behaviour.
The paradigm is that very few are ready to pay for the difference in price between the recycling of pollution and something that is already in the waste stream or even virgin plastic said to be recycled. We are paying extreme care in using the least energy possible as well as providing the best material to people buying our plastic. Maybe using large industrial facilities would make our life simpler but the nearest net recycling specialist that could take our material is in the north of Denmark. In terms of carbon footprint, it is a no-go for us. The solution would be worse than the problem.
The story of this net has taught us what was the reality of ocean plastic pollution. It is a long lasting effort to provide some sort of solution. We are progressively scaling our operations so that many like us can be involved in the solution. The super-centralised system that is offered at the moment is not adapted to our hard-to-reach area with limited population. Also these massive plants are basically hiding the problem. You generate or collect plastic and then it disappears either in landfill, incinerated or recycled thousands of km from you. You do not control what happens to the pollution, you cannot even be sure that it was appropriately processed. If there was an easy solution, the situation would be different without any doubt. The solution would be in place already and we would not have to cope with tons of plastic ourselves.
We strongly believe that coastal communities should empower themselves to be able to leverage something out of ocean plastic pollution. In this days where every problem should be solved by a simple box ticking exercise, this might seem daunting especially when authorities and polluters do not take their responsibilities. It is however unlikely that support will come and magically clear the pollution and makes something positive out of it. Following the story of this net, we learnt a lot and are happy to share our knowledge with with others engaging against ocean pollution. Do not hesitate to send us an email or contact through social media. In the course of 2022, we will release new methods and machinery plans that hopefully will answer some of the issues coastal communities face. Stay tuned…