Obviously the fishing net recycling loop isn’t the first thing on anyone’s mind when they think of BREXIT, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be impacted.

The current situation is broadly this;

There are no specialist fishing net recyclers in the UK. Where they are recycled the UK’s used fishing nets go to continental recyclers. Where nets aren’t recycled they go to landfill. Neither route is positive for the local, coastal economy, regardless of the type of nets or their originating port.

The cross-border shipment of used nets for ‘recovery’ (AKA recycling) is governed under EU regulation No 1013/2006. The relevant operative clause for this disussion is No. 14;

“…it is appropriate to ensure optimum supervision and control by requiring prior written consent to such shipments. Such a procedure should in turn entail prior notification, which enables the competent authorities to be duly informed so that they can take all necessary measures for the protection of human health and the environment. It should also enable those authorities to raise reasoned objections to such a shipment.”

So current EU law requires that waste nets are detailed as such and documentation is provided as evidence so that they may be rejected at the discretion of the relevant authorities along any route to an overseas recycler.

The result of this regulation is legislation in UK statue that imposes a management fee on the export of all wastes, including end-of-life nets, to enable the tracking of those wastes from their source to their destination. To ship a single load of nets, of any size, from the UK to an EU-based recycling plant costs a maximum of £1,450 per shipment plus a financial guarantee or equivalent insurance to cover worst case costs of recovery of the shipment to its point of origin. Insurance costs will vary between operators but the minimum direct guarantee to the certifying authority (the Environment Agency in the case of the UK) is somewhere over £595 and rises with the size of the shipment. These costs are on a sliding scale, seemingly to incentivise larger shipments over smaller ones, but this has the impact that relatively small waste generators (such as the Cornish fishing industry) must pay more to export their waste for recycling, or indeed for disposal.

To ship even 1 tonne of used nets from Cornwall to anywhere in the EU will cost over £2000 in up-front administrative costs, before any actual handling or transport costs are incurred.

I think we need the tracking of waste shipments to prevent criminal waste disposal, but I don’t think that I’m stretching my imagination if I can imagine a situation where those costs rise post-BREXIT.

For the record I don’t believe that the EU would exclude a high quality material like nylon from import for recycling, but its general stance is to exert a legislative or administrative push on lower quality or difficult to treat waste streams. The Circular Economy package of legislation currently going through the EU law making process certainly sees closing the loop on internal waste streams as a priority, but it is less clear on taking in wastes from outside its own boundaries.

What is clear is that land-filling of waste nets, because they are a separately collected waste stream, would be banned by 2030 under a full implementation of The Circular Economy Package, leaving recycling the only option.

In the recent 2-day stakeholder conference on The Circular Economy, Commissioner Kermenu Vella was third to take the podium, and spoke at length about the EU’s actions to help facilitate the shift to a circular resource use paradigm. He reported that there are up to €150bn being put towards that shift. He also spoke specifically about single use plastics and impacts on the marine environment. Whatever you think of the EU or The Circular Economy there are changes afoot there on resource use and recycling, so we should expect ripples from that shift to impact us.

Lets put some figures on the issue.

Earlier in the year Fishy Filaments carried out an estimate for end-of-life fishing net export costs we found that a 40 tonne load of used nylon nets would cost somewhere over £6,000 per shipment. If you add in the cost of brokerage (because the fishermen themselves don’t actually do any of this, a plastics broker does the paperwork and arranges the transport with a cost attached) it is not difficult to see 40 tonnes of used nets needing to sell at close to £10,000 to break even. That equates to upfront costs of around £250 per tonne of used nylon, before any actual recycling is done.

Who bares that cost depends on who recycles the material. Only a very small proportion of the costs are currently imposed on the fishing industry, and those imposed costs are largely in opportunity or operational costs rather than any structured payments or capital/infrastructure costs. If the export of used nets for recycling stops being self-supporting, the costs would fall directly on the fishing industry and initially that would be the cost of landfill.

In a simple balance of costs and benefits localising the recycling of this relatively small amount of nylon would save over £350 per tonne in landfill costs or £250 per tonne in recycling costs. How positive an impact this localisation could be depends on the end product. ‘Virgin’ granulated nylon derived directly from crude oil sells at well over £1,000 per tonne, so localising production of a functionally equivalent product would provide a net benefit of a minimum of £1,250 per tonne to the economy over the current recycling solution. In the open market recycled nylon granules actually carry a premium to that baseline, but only if they meet specific quality criteria. The current price for 3D printer filament made of nylon is far, far higher than that baseline, but its production is not the only way to add value to recycled plastics. Fishy Filaments is not a one-trick pony 😉

It doesn’t matter whether you see BREXIT as an overall positive or overall negative there will be a disruption to our established recycling systems. Whether we decide to make that disruption work towards a more effective and efficient net recycling solution or against it is something that is already within our control.

Our call for localisation of net recycling is based on the economics and engineering not the politics. But the positives of plastic recycling extend far past simple economic benefit. We can make the recycling system more environmentally sound, more socially inclusive and also use it to demonstrate engineering skills in an educational context. You’ve heard of a ‘Win-Win’ solution. Fishy Filaments wants to provide a ‘Win-Win-Win-Win’ solution.