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Feb 3, 2021

Making New Materials from Used Fishing Gear

An Interview with PLASTIX Founder Hans Axel Kristensen by Nadine Zylberberg

We now know that ocean plastic pollution is a global environmental disaster. We have learned to live with microplastics infiltrating our food supply, and the grief that follows from seeing photos of bird bellies filled with plastic. For people living on the world’s shorelines and working on the water, these realizations hit home decades ago.

The Denmark-based company PLASTIX takes on a significant contributor to marine plastic pollution – the maritime industry. Over the last 9 years, Plastix has become an expert in the recycling of post-use fishing nets and ropes, taking these tough fibers and transforming them into high-quality raw materials to make new plastic durable consumer goods.

“We need to completely transform the way that we produce our products, and also the way that we use our products,” CEO Hans Axel Kristensen 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 [material] as waste; we still don’t see it as a resource.”

Which is why Kristensen 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.” Before Plastix, Kristensen developed sustainable design solutions and collaborated regularly with wastewater, recycling, and waste management facilities. He learned the ins and outs of the legislative frameworks around water management and became compelled to unearth areas that desperately needed long-term sustainable solutions.

He and the now-board chairman of PLASTIX Ole Raft eventually honed 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 (as “ghost nets”) and that doesn’t account for the millions of pounds of nets and roes that end up in landfill. Denmark was a natural place from which to kick off a massive recycling endeavor.

Fishing net fibers get separated and homogenized, shredded, washed, separated, and dried before being upcycled into a new material. Photo: PLASTIX

“We are a country of coastlines,” Hans said. “Summer houses are by the oceans and you engage with fisheries regularly. We thought that the EU was very close to publishing the world’s first-ever plastic strategy back in 2012. That would take another five years, in the aftermath of the European Circular Economy Package. The world was not ready yet.”

Nine years ago Kristensen and Raft opened the doors to PLASTIX with the aim of developing a mechanical recycling technology for maritime fibers.

“You want to have an automated process at an industrial scale, ensuring that you have the nets and ropes cleaned, washed, separated, and properly dried without destroying the molecular chain of the material.” The PLASTIX team spoke to shredding companies across the globe that claimed they could easily handle this waste stream-not true. “Fibers are the toughest material,” Hans said. “They will cause knives to break. They will cause an axel to break like butter. We had to become steel experts.”

Outside the PLASTIX factory in Denmark. Photo: PLASTIX

Proprietary manufacturing developments contribute to a fully operational and automatic industrial scale production line, outputting quality PLASTIX recycled plastic pellets  consistently. Hans asees PLASTIX as a company in a fundamentally relational industry.

“We see ourselves as more than a recycler—We see ourselves as a raw material producer.”

Hans Axel Kristensen

Understanding challenges at sea

Fostering the relationships that make PLASTIX possible involves “persistence and a willingness to meet people, invite 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.” One of Kristensen’s primary roles is in education: “continuously and consistently telling the story, engaging and involving people in what we’re doing here”.

“We are engaging in a circular dialogue, sourcing for preventive action, helping input suppliers, harbors, larger fisheries, and waste management to understand what recyclable in fact means — and now, we’re also being approached by netting and rope producers to assist in the design of new product” to maximize recycling after use.

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.”

In the case of enforced EPR, “I can promise you one thing: the first thing a responsible CEO will do is to require their engineers to 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.

Hans Axel Kristensen. Photo: PLASTIX

Kristensen acknowledges that recycling is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Hans works with shipping nets and rope 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. 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. It is a working tool.”

“Plastic is a very complex material,” Hans explained. “There are many types of plastics that are not compatible with each other during the recycling process. 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 quality and application of PLASTIX’s mechanically recycled pellets are on par with virgin plastics. Photo: PLASTIX

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. Integrating PLASTIX’s materials can save customers 82% CO2 emissions compared to virgin equivalents.

Kristensen contends that he might have the most exciting job in the world, simply by being a part of this global transition into 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.”

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