If you’ve been paying attention, you know that ocean plastic pollution is a global environmental disaster. We have learned to live with the fact that microplastics are infiltrating our bodies through our food supply chain, and tolerate photos of fish and bird bellies filled with plastic waste. For people living on the world’s shorelines and working on the water, these realizations hit home decades ago.
Where many of us see a used fishing net, Hans Axel Kristensen sees potential. Eight years ago, the CEO and co-founder of PLASTIX found an opening in a market that had little incentive to recycle. The Denmark-based PLASTIX has become not only a recycler of post-use fishing nets and ropes, but rather a manufacturer of green plastics — taking these tough fibers and transforming them into high-quality raw materials to make, say, a chair or a kayak.
“We need to completely transform the way that we produce our products, but also the way that we use our products,” Hans said. “The concept of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ was already quite popular back in the 1970s. Why are we still faced with more challenges than solutions?”
“We are actually still at ground zero when we were talking about designing our products for circular material loops,” he added. “We see it as waste; we still don’t see it as a resource.”
That’s why Hans set off to rethink how an entire industry uses its waste. “This was not just an idea that popped down from the sky. Ideas never do.” Hans entered with an architecture and design background, where he worked on sustainable design solutions and collaborated regularly with wastewater, recycling, and waste management facilities. He learned the ins and outs of the legislative frameworks around them and became compelled to unearth areas that desperately needed long-term sustainable solutions.
He and the now-board chairman of PLASTIX Ole Raft began digging into the challenges in the waste management sector, eventually honing in on one particular waste stream that needed disrupting: used fishing nets and ropes. Every year, 20% of these materials are reportedly lost at sea (“ghost nets”) and that doesn’t even account for those that end up in landfills. Denmark seemed like a natural place from which to kick off a massive recycling endeavor.
“We are a country of coastlines,” Hans said. “This is something you notice. Summer houses are by the oceans and you engage with fisheries regularly.”
Hans and Ole ttook on a feasibility study and set off from there. “We thought that the European Union was very close to publishing the world’s first-ever plastic strategy back in 2012. It turned out that it would take another five years before they came up with it, in the aftermath of the European Circular Economy Package. The world was not ready yet.”
With conviction and foresight, eightyears ago, Hans drove up to the factory on the west coast of Denmark and opened the doors to PLASTIX with the aim of developing a mechanical recycling technology for these tricky maritime fibers that no one could find a solution for. And that turned out to be a challenge unto itself.
“It’s not like you can go out there and buy equipment that will solve this problem, because if you could, then others would have done it,” Hans explained. “We learned that we had to develop this proprietary mechanical technology ourselves.”
PLASTIX’s technology starts with the crucial step of sorting and homogenizing the input, or the nets and ropes; in other words, “understanding what it is” before it enters into production. This continues to be a very labor-intensive process.
For production itself, “you would want to have a very automized process at an industrial scale and level, ensuring that you have the nets and ropes cleaned, washed, separated, and properly dried where you’re not destroying the molecular chain in the material.” The PLASTIX team spoke to shredding companies across the globe that claimed they could easily handle this waste stream. Not exactly. “Fibers are the toughest material,” Hans said. “They will cause knives to break. They will cause axels to break like butter. So now, we are actually today experts within steel.”
Proprietary developments along the production chain have enabled PLASTIX to have a fully operational, fully automized production line at industrial scale, where they can produce high-quality output — plastic pellets — consistently. And using PLASTIX’s materials will save customers 82% CO2 emissions compared to virgin equivalents.
“To a certain extent, the approach that we have had has also been to see ourselves as more than a recycler. We see ourselves as a raw material producer.”
But Hans also sees PLASTIX as a company in a fundamentally relational industry.
Understanding challenges at sea
The maritime industry, like any industry, is made up of individuals and groups all along the value chain. Which is why Hans is also in the business of education.
Fostering the relationships that make PLASTIX possible involves “persistence and a willingness to meet people, inviting them to the factory to see that it makes sense to collect their waste stream — showing them that you can produce an actual, tangible product out of waste that would otherwise disappear in the ocean or landfill.” It’s about “continuously and consistently telling the story, engaging and involving them in what we’re doing here” in order to prove the company’s traceability and transparency.
“We are engaging in a circular dialogue, sourcing for preventive action, helping input suppliers, harbors, larger fisheries, and waste management to understand what recyclability actually means — and now, we’re also being approached by netting and rope producers to assist in the recyclability of their new products,” Hans said.
These conversations are also crucial at a time when legislative intervention will subject the industry to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) under the Single-Use Plastics Directive by January 2023. EPR, Hans explained, “is basically built on the ‘polluter pays’ principle. It’s really up to them to fix the problem.” He shared an example he often thinks back to when discussing end-of-life scenarios. “Imagine you’re the CEO or investors of X company and your products will now end up at your doorstep when they have reached their end of life. Now it is your job and it is your cost to either disassemble them or recycle them and bring them back into the circular material loop.”
“If that was actually the case, I can promise you one thing: the first thing a responsible CEO would do would be to address the engineers and request that they design for circular material loops.”
“We need a common language. We need to set common goals. I think we all have a joint responsibility to move into this sustainable circular economy.”
Hans believes legislation should be steering economies towards sustainability through clear and consistent political interventions — but that businesses must be the driving engines. With maritime plastics, specifically, change begins by reframing a traditional way of working and including stakeholders in the process.
As Hans acknowledges, recycling in this manner is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Hans works with suppliers shipping nets and rope to PLASTIX all the way from Alaska — where the alternative would be sending them to a Seattle landfill. Currently, the company works with Iceland under a return deposit system, whereby maritime industry partners and commercial vessels pay a fee to cover nets that don’t arrive back to the harbor; those that do are transported as part of the scheme back to Reykjavik, where they are pre-sorted, containerized, and shipped to PLASTIX. “Then, we report back to the Icelandic authorities what we have produced with their input,” Hans said.
What’s (really) in a net?
Hans pointed to the direction of the door of PLASTIX’s factory, where 1,500 tons of fishing nets lay outside, waiting to be sorted and processed. Chains and buoys are regularly found in the nets, but not much else. There have been one or two instances of smelly fish in the history of the company. The nets, Hans explains, just smell like the ocean.
“This is an industry that takes care of their equipment,” he said. “They bring the nets back to the vessel clean because, otherwise, they would be living with these contaminations and they are not. It is a working tool.”
That said, some nets and ropes are made of mixed plastics, rendering them non-recyclable.
“Plastic is a very, very complex material,” Hans explained. “There are many types of plastics that are not compatible with each other during the recycling process. As such, we spend this extensive effort and time to actually sort out our material into these fractions so that they can be put into these two types of products we have: rHDPE [made from nets and trawls] and rPPC [made from maritime ropes].” rPPC is a common blend of PP and PE used to produce maritime fishing gear, improving stability below freezing.
Sometimes, Hans finds that nets are being repaired with different types of polymers, mostly PA (nylon) or PET on an HDPE fishing net, prompting the team to go back to the source. “We went out to the ports and asked the fishermen directly, ‘Why are you repairing your nets when there are risks that they break with this type of rope, which is a completely different plastic type?’ And they came up with this brilliant answer: ‘Well, listen, when we’re out there fishing and our hands are super cold, we need something soft to work with. HDPE is a little stiffer and the surface a little bit more slippery.’ So we can go back to the netting and rope producers and say, ‘Listen, you just need to increase the MFI of your repair kit so we can use the same material and then make a slight color difference so they can see what they have repaired.’”
Hans finds it’s crucial to do that fieldwork, to talk to end-users about what they do and why — and educating them on what other options are out there. He’s motivated by the effort to turn the tide against “society’s careless production, careless consumption, and careless disposal of waste.”
“This is the transformation that has gotten into my DNA because there are ways to fix this — and it makes sense to fix this,” he said. “It is tremendously meaningful to actually produce products from a pile of used, discarded, and in some cases, very dirty nets and ropes.”
Making a chair out of rope—and then another
“Sustainability is utterly useless if it’s only done one time,” Hans said. “Sustainability is really something that is related to circular material loops. It has to be the guiding principle of the design process.”
And it has to be based on evidence. “Working evidence-based is what we do. We don’t assume or guess. Everything is based on the data generated by our laboratory,” Hans said. “And if there’s something we don’t know, we have means to find other sources to help us generate the same information.”
By adding a 2% stabilizer (currently carried on virgin material) to their recycled output, PLASTIX ensures the further recyclability of the materials. And with each new life, Hans finds further excitement and purpose.
The company’s ambition is to sell their raw material to producers who make products that (A) won’t end up in seas or oceans and (B) are created under circular design principles. For now, this means mostly working with long-term, or higher-end, products that will have a long life. That said, you can also make crates or shopping carts from PLASTIX’s materials — and then bring them back to make new shopping carts out of it again. Each time, to optimize the material, that 2% stabilizer would be added.
Hans contends that he might have the most exciting job in the world, simply by being a part of this global transition into sustainable behaviors and sustainable production. “It is such a satisfying feeling to see all of these amazing products that can come out of the waste stream, the different shapes and sizes, all made from, in our case, post-consumer maritime fishing nets and ropes that would otherwise end up in seas and oceans or landfills.”