How an upcycling idea produced a net result

These days the brim of a Patagonia hat is constructed with recycled discarded fishing nets – how did it get there? Ben Kneppers, co-founder of the start-up that developed the new material, tells Volta about the twists and turns involved in turning a million kilos of tangled plastic nets into stuff people can buy.

How many late-night conversations, cold beer in hand, end with a vow to hop off the treadmill and follow our passions, do something more positive – even try to make a difference to the planet?

North American friends Ben Kneppers and David Stover had plenty of those chats when they shared a house in Sydney nearly a decade ago, often focusing on their shared love of surfing and the ocean environment, and fears for the unsustainable path the planet is “barrelling down”.

For them, in 2013 the talk turned into action, in the name of a firm called Bureo.

Leap ahead to 2020 and – along with another friend, design engineer and fellow surfer Kevin Ahearn –  they’ve got a growing company that’s working with fishing communities and businesses in South America to keep discarded plastic fishing nets out of the ocean – where they cause phenomenal harm – and recycle them into pellets to be used in plastic products. So far, they have collected around one million kilos of nets, via an incentive programme that started with fishers on central Chile’s wild coast, around Concepción, and has now extended to Argentina and Peru.

We quickly became known as the three gringos that were recycling fishing nets into skateboards

– Ben Knepper, Bureo Founder

Their upcycling plan began with creating skateboards from nets and went on to include surf fins, frisbees, a collection of Costa sunglasses frames and an ‘ocean’ version of the official Jenga game. In their biggest coup to date, after five years of laborious testing and development, this year outdoor clothing giant Patagonia started using Bureo’s recycled material, called NetPlus, to replace the virgin plastic in their hat brims. The relationship is so tight that Bureo established its US base in Ventura, California, where Patagonia is headquartered, and they are already working on where else they can use NetPlus in the company’s product line. 

Bureo has been a story of old-fashioned graft, patience and belief, lucky happenstance, marketing savvy and some logistical, technical and bureaucratic puzzles that at times probably felt like disentangling a bottomless mound of fishing nets. Crucially, their idea has gained game-changing support – from early Kickstarter funds, to a US$40,000 start-up grant from the Chilean government, to the heft of Patagonia via its Tin Shed Ventures fund, which invests in start-ups that offer solutions to the environmental crisis.

ONE SMALL SOLUTION… BUT WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

The issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is well documented, but perhaps less well known are the disproportionately deadly consequences of nets and other abandoned, lost or discarded fishing equipment such as lines, ropes and traps – known as ‘ghost gear’. Ensnaring marine life on a massive scale for years after it ends up in the water, it eventually breaks down into microplastics that enter the food chain.

According to a 2009 UN report, more than 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear ends up in the oceans each year. The figure, and the estimate that this makes up around 10% of marine litter, is now considered to be far higher by organisations such as the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), which compiles data, and according to a 2019 Greenpeace report ghost gear makes up the majority of large plastic pollution.

“We already had Patagonia as our benchmark of doing the right things in this space,” says Kneppers, who’s now based out of Brazil where he lives with his wife and baby daughter.

“They saw a story on us on CBS news, and the investment director reached out. At that stage it was just us trying to make skateboards and we were just happy to have them in the room. But it was, honestly, their bigger vision that helped us take it to where it is today. When they had our back on incorporating the material into other people’s product lines, that it really gave us the confidence that we can grow it this way.

“Now, actually seeing our material in their products and having them take such pride in it… that has been the coolest achievement of all to date.”

Sustainability has been a consistent thread running through Kneppers’ career. After studying mechanical engineering, he undertook various internships and ended up working on a renewable energy project in a refugee settlement in Zambia that, he says, “opened my eyes to just how unjust the world is today”.

He went on to do a sustainability Master’s programme in Sweden that focused on “making sense of the bigger systems that are causing a lot of this and how to create systemic change” and went into the field of life-cycle assessment [LCA], working as a sustainability consultant in New Zealand, then Australia, where he coincided with Stover.

Working punishing hours in the financial sector, Stover somewhat envied Knepper’s job because it was at least “touching” on environmental concerns but, in reality, Kneppers says he started finding himself “in a meeting to have a meeting to write a report, to have a meeting, without much real change happening”.

Through a Chilean colleague, he ended up in Santiago, working for the public-private Funcación Chile, developing a new hub for sustainability in products and materials.

“At that same time – yes, we got lucky on a lot of coincidences – I was doing a study on the wild-caught fishing industry in Chile, and it struck me when we found out that discarded fishing gear was such a significant source of plastic pollution in the ocean. There is a very significant fishing industry in Chile and nobody was actually doing anything with that waste. That’s when it all came together.”

When Kneppers spotted an upcoming deadline for an entrepreneurship support programme called Startup Chile – which provides visas, office space and funding –he talked to Stover again.

“We said ‘hey, remember those talks? Well let’s have a go’. Our love was the ocean environment and we were really just fascinated by the plastic pollution that was plaguing it. We did a lot of interviews and research and started to realise that there are a lot of really tangible solutions that can be taken on to address this issue.”

When Ahearn was brought on board his knowledge helped them home in on what materials could actually be recycled into a consistent, reliable source of plastic – and they landed on nylon nets.

Through Kneppers’ existing work they were able to make contacts with fisheries and their efforts began attracting attention from the press.

“We quickly became known as the three gringos that were recycling fishing nets into skateboards. It began to get known and more fisherman and fisheries across Chile were reaching out to us to work with their nets as well.”

HOW DOES IT WORK?:

> Nets are collected from coastal communities; fisheries receive payments in return.

> They’re cleaned, sorted and separated by type of material.

> The materials are shredded and melted into pellets.

> The pellets are formed into, or used within, products for sale

“We were never turned away by the communities… the more interesting dynamic was how rough these places can be. We had a meeting set for the same day there happened to be a riot at the port, and the whole place was fleeing because of tear gas. Plenty of other times where there was the visible sight of handguns on desks and in people’s back pockets – that was a bit surreal, but they were always very nice to us and very welcoming to our work!”

It was key for the trio that they focused on three fundamental elements, he adds: that the project educated people on the “massive consequences of simple actions” such as leaving a piece of plastic in the marine environment; that it focused on creating an infrastructure that stopped the pollution ‘upstream’, preventing the nets being left in the ocean rather than trying to clean up the mess; and that this system would generate behaviour change by giving fishers a price per kilo to recycle the nets, with the upcycling programme financing that support and completing the circle. 

It’s a circle that needs constant maintenance and vigilance. Bureo is now on the receiving end of the LCA process Kneppers advised others on as a consultant, with the company currently going through a second assessment to take into account the more complex supply chain that’s resulted from their expansion. When their first LCA was done, while NetPlus was found to have a far lower impact than virgin plastic, Kneppers says they “identified opportunities to improve our impact by increasing the efficiencies during the transport and recycling process” and made changes so all long-distance net collection transport had to include at least 15,000kg of material and all recycling runs at least 10,000kg.

The journey has not been without its challenges, says Kneppers, which crop up daily and have ranged from getting permits to work with and transport the nets, to identifying each material type and maintaining full traceability, to “logistics nightmares from truck strikes to customs requirements changes, to new, understandable, regulations on moving plastic scrap internationally”. It took five years to reach a point where the Patagonia hat brims were 100% recycled fishing nets of a suitable consistency. With Bureo’s original nylon-based material “breaking the needles” when the brims were sewn into the hats, they pivoted to using a second type of net used by fishers, made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and it worked.   

“We have definitely had plenty of dark days, but we have found a way and that’s what, in some respects, we are most proud of. And I think what Patagonia and other partners have really grown to respect about us is that we have always found a way to keep this alive.

“The dark ones are the days when you just need to go take a break, go back in the water and realise this isn’t just a job to do a job – it’s serving something that you really are passionate about, says Kneppers, who also gets the message out via his role as a member of the GGGI’s Expert Advisory Council.

“It’s given me so much more purpose and value to know that what I’m doing is my own creation and it’s succeeding, so I have nothing but faith that we are going to keep going and growing this thing.

“In 10, 20, 30 years from now, will I look back and regret this? And I have no question it would be the other way around – if we hadn’t taken this on it probably would have been the biggest regret of my life.

Follow and support Bureo Inc on their latest environmental projects :

Website : https://bureo.co/

Instagram : https://www.instagram.com/bureo/

Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/BureoSkateboards/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/bureoInc

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