It doesn’t matter if we are talking about Coke cans, water bottles or used fishing nets, disposing of waste is almost always an inefficient use of resources.
Simply burying domestic and industrial waste is no longer the right solution, if it ever was. Social and economic pressures, whether they be on raw materials, land, energy or emissions attributed to consumptive behaviour, are exposing the fundamental truth that most of our physical stuff can be used more than once.
So the argument can now change from whether we should Reduce/Reuse/Recycle to how best to close the loop.
There is a technique known as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that attempts to gather all the many and varied social, economic and environmental pressures under one umbrella, allowing a rational comparison of like-for-like impact of the production or provision of things and services. Its a big idea and it has certainly moved the whole discussion of how efficient enclosed systems and processes are in relative terms, demonstrating which can uses more or less energy, consumes more or less resources or emits more or less pollution.
However it does have issues when considering large, geographically distributed processes, such as car making or, in our case, plastics recycling.
The data that commercially available LCAs provide are averages. They include high efficiency elements with low efficiency elements to reach a figure for the system-wide impact. If you look at an LCA and compare it with actual measured local or regional figures, some areas will be better and some will be worse.
So as an analogy; an off-the-shelf LCA homogenises a ‘hub and spoke’ system, such as fishing net recycling, where not all the spokes are of an equal length, into a single unified data point. That’s not to suggest that LCAs are wrong, just that when implimenting solutions on the basis of LCA data it needs to be viewed alongside real-world geography or be very specifically constrained by what are technically known as ‘boundaries’.
In the case of European fishing net recycling the continental-scale LCAs include transportion of nets by sea and by road, from the Med and from The Arctic, and from different types of fisheries. Their application has supported in the establishment of two main net recycling streams; one for HDPE focussed on the North Sea and another focussed on Nylon and centred on the Med. These are completely rational economic geographies, they minimise the total systemic impact on the basis of Life Cycle Assessment, but on a whole EU-scale.
For individual geographic areas within the EU the current set of LCAs may or may not reflect the actual impacts on the ground. In the case of UK fisheries we are marginal to the Nylon recycling sphere for two reasons; distance from the hub (its located in Slovenia) and the tonnage of nylon nets used (which is relatively low due to the type and guage of the netting itself, as well as the type of fishing carried out). The situation is better for HDPE nets, the Danish recycling hub is closer and the UK fleet uses a higher tonnage of nets (mainly because on average HDPE nets are larger and heavier).
How then can you actually minimise the shore-based impacts of fishing net use and maximise the efficiency of their recycling?
Well, its a balance. But it is clear that peripheral regions, such as SW England or NW Scotland cannot lie on the systemic LCA average for Nylon. Localising some Nylon net recycling capacity will certainly strip out a big chunk of the transport costs associated with the current hub and spoke system, probably making the remaining continental scale LCA better, but it could do a lot more, and more directly of benefit to the local fishing industry.
Fishing nets are built to fit specific local fisheries. The combination of materials, the mesh sizes and geometries and the support materials they utilise are evolved or scientific, but they are particular, not average. And net use changes year-to-year as catch tonnages are legally constrained to help maintain stocks at a healthy level. Even individual skippers have preferences that are expressed in their use of nets as they hunt their patch for hidden riches. So ideally, just as net repair is done to meet boat-by-boat requirements, so net recycling should be able to cope with those variations too.
The hub & spoke recycling system, supported by the current EU-scale Life Cycle Analysis of net use, is an average solution that must cope with nets from all over the continent. In order to provide that continental scale the current system minimises revenue associated with net recycling at a local or regional level. The LCA clearly demonstrates that this mass market recycling is better than using ‘virgin’ material, on average, but that doesn’t mean that the current system is optimal especially in marginal cases, or indeed at a non-EU scale.
Localising the recycling capacity would mean a far closer fit between the source materials (the used nets from a specific fishery) and the technology and technique employed by a dedicated net recycler. Economically this limits the scale of the recycling solution to fit the size of the fishery, making it far less attractive to large international companies whose business models require that growth is fundamental to investment in new capacity. It also means that wages in local scale recycling will inevitably be higher than in mass market recycling. How else would a business keep its more skilled staff ?
How then does a localised net recycling capacity get off the ground ?
The production of dedicated, rather than off-the-shelf, LCAs is a complex and expensive exercise that entrepreneurial start-ups, such as Fishy Filaments, cannot undertake in advance of commercialisation. Its impossible. The data required can’t exist until recycling has already started.
So we can’t compete with established solutions on the basis of an LCA (and we have already lost potential business because of this exact issue), but we can provide a thorough and well constructed business case. We can show that we understand how our business model fits into the existing business ecosystem, adding to it, strengthening and diversifying it, providing benefits past a simple Return on Investment calculation on a spreadsheet.
Fishy Filaments has identified 3D printer filament, initially one made of Nylon, as a means to kick start a local net recycling capacity because it has a very high potential revenue when compared with the raw material. At the moment the market for recycled 3D printer filaments is limited, but growing fast, so in fact it is a very good fit for Cornwall’s relatively small net recycling requirements. So on both sides of the business equation the markets are a good size for a start-up company to attack, but that’s not the only area of good fit.
Cornwall has a different outlook on life. Resources have always been known to be finite here. A life of excess and ease isn’t part of the deal. And there are good reasons to believe that the revolution in mining technology that took place two centuries ago was at least in part a result of the twin environmental challenges of sea and mine. Coming from the mining tradition we want to set up a business that works at the forefront of materials science and technology, but does so in a way that fits in with and evolves with existing business practices. We want to take a load off a strained Cornish waste disposal system and keep the value of the material used in fishing nets close to home.
3D printing is both a technology that is at the leading edge of modern high value manufacturing and a great starting point for all kinds of Science & Technology based small business, whether that is actually designing products, operating the machines themselves, or as means to advance techniques in healthcare and medicine. Even the hospitality and tourist industries are finding uses for the technology.
Fancy a 3D printed chocolate cod as your dinner party centre-piece ? The technology exists right now.
Fancy a 3D printed trawler as your place of work ? We’re not quite there yet but aircraft engine parts are being 3D printed as you read this and large shipping companies such as Maersk are working hard on the technology for 3D printing spares at sea.
We want to bring the production of specialist materials for 3D printing to Cornwall, multiplying the value of the raw material of old nets before they get exported for disposal or recycling. We want to kick-start a new branch of the existing business ecosystem based around local production of innovative high value products, year round. We want to close the recycling loop, proving that continental-scale solutions aren’t always the best. We want to make a living, but in a way that adds in as many ways as possible. We want to be free to innovate, anticipating tomorrow’s challenges and hunting solutions that work for everyone.
But we have to start somewhere.
We believe that transforming a liability into an asset is both possible and pursuasive, but our pockets are relatively small. We need help to get to the next stage.
Pledge your support at Crowdfunder