There’s no easy way to get rid of old fishing nets in Unalaska. America’s top fishing port is remote and nets can weigh thousands of pounds.
Now, for the first time, about 80 retired nets are on their way to a recycling program halfway around the world.
It all starts outside Unalaska’s Grand Aleutian hotel. The view is almost always the same — men moving piles of fishing nets. This day is no exception.
With the help of a crane, Andy Pirrello is part of a team hoisting huge nets into the back of a flatbed truck. His job? Compressing the nets, so they can fit tightly into shipping containers to be sent to Denmark. It’s not easy.
“You know you’re getting showered by rust, dirt, jellyfish, anything can fall off the back of the crane,” Pirrello said.
Pirrello has been coming up to fish in Unalaska for three years. Today, he’s happy to be helping clean up the island for the people who live here year round.
He has one person to thank for coordinating this project — Nicole Baker. In 2010, Baker started coming up to Unalaska as a fisheries observer and the piles of nets caught her eye.
“I just noticed that there was a lot of old, junky nets lying around,” Baker said.
The nets are monstrous, from 5,000 to 20,000 pounds each. The industrial gear was used for catching pollock and cod.
Finding a way to remove and repurpose the nets became Baker’s passion project. For the past two years, she’s been looking for organizations capable of recycling the worn out gear. She sent samples to companies like Parley for the Oceans — which was working to make sneakers with Adidas out of nets confiscated from illegal fishing.
“And so I wrote those guys and emailed and said, if you’re interested in unused fishing nets, I know where you could possibly get some,” Baker said.
The problem was, they only wanted nylon nets and most of the nets in Unalaska are made of polyethylene or polypropylene.
So, Baker kept looking. Eventually she found the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, an organization focused on dealing with abandoned fishing gear, and they suggested a company capable of recycling the nets.
Plastix is based in Copenhagen, Denmark. CEO Axel Kristensen is focused on recycling unwanted fishing gear into high quality plastic pellets.
“It seems so unreasonable and not logic[al] to just throw it away when we know that if handling plastics right — if sorting and homogenizing it — you can actually reuse it over and over and over again,” Kristensen said.
According to Kristensen, Plastix is the only company in the world recycling fishing nets in this way. Once the nets arrive at the plant, they’re cut into smaller pieces, sorted by material type – be it polyethylene, nylon or polypropylene – and processed.
“You cannot produce a quality recyclate, if you don’t ensure that you get the right input,” he said. “If you get a lot of, excuse me for the word ‘crap,’ then you get crap recyclates.”
For now, Plastix is selective about who they work with. The company is small and they want to be sure they are only sent products they can recycle. If a container is loaded with unusable waste, it will end up in a landfill in Denmark.
Kristensen was happy to work with Baker to recycle the nets from Unalaska.
“We cannot do this alone,” he said. “We need someone like Trident [Seafood], Nicole Baker, all kinds of stakeholders to take part in this project.”
This is the first time the company has recycled nets from the United States and it involves buy-in from multiple parties. The boat captains or fishing companies are responsible for packing the nets small enough to fit into shipping containers. With the help of Trident Seafoods, Plastix is paying for the containers to be shipped directly to Denmark.
This is the first year of the collaboration, but Baker says there was high demand from fishermen looking to find a new use for their nets.
“I hope to keep this going somehow,” Baker said. “So we we’ll see.”
Continuing the recycling project will take more than just Baker. It will require investments from multiple people and organizations — from the fishermen to Plastix.