An Italian fibre company leads attempts to repurpose derelict fishing nets.

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An Italian fibre company leads attempts to repurpose derelict fishing nets.

Derelict fishnets are silent killers of the sea

LAST YEAR, FASHION DESIGNER STELLA MCCARTNEY sent her Spring/Summer 2019 collection down the runway with tie-dye jumpsuits and V-necks made of the then pretty much unheard-of yarn Econyl. Around that time, H&M also designed a £299 wedding dress from a blend of the same material. Last November, Swiss watchmaker Breitling dressed a legacy model with an Econyl-made strap. Meanwhile, it was used by UK interior design product brand Tom Dixon for carpets, Italy-founded outdoor attire brand Save the Duck debuted an entire collection of vibrant yellows, oranges, reds and greens with it, Prada unveiled a new sustainability line based on this material and Austrian brand Wolford has even started bringing in high-end pantyhose with the Econyl stamp. 

So what is this sought-after material, that starts with an “eco” prefix? The answer: it’s nylon – made from recycled fishing nets in part. Though not a breakthrough feat in itself, the Italian textile brand is the first to make it accessible and affordable enough to attract not only dedicated followers who appreciate companies that try to be green nor only the vegan animal-rights-toting hipster niche, but also average customers on the hunt for clothing, footwear, active wear, bags, swimsuits, glasses, undergarments and, frankly, every staple in the closet and more. It also helps that Econyl feels and works in the same way as virgin nylon and that it can be recycled, recreated and perpetually remoulded. 

Born in 2011 at 50-year-old parent company Aquafil, which makes Nylon 6 – a prominent component in industrial yarn and fabric used in the production of tyres, Econyl has been reversing the company’s gears. Its construction begins with the collection of pre- and post-production consumer waste, which includes fishing nets, fabric scraps and carpets. From these waste materials the Nylon 6 within is extracted and repurposed – being made into new yarn suitable for the fashion and interior industries. Not only does this process steer away from virgin nylon’s main ingredient of crude oil – lots and lots of it is conventionally needed – the company actually claims that every 10,000 tonnes of Econyl made actually saves more than 70,000 barrels of crude oil and avoids 57,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

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Sparing Mother Earth is one key advantage, but an even bigger silver lining is the upcycling of derelict fishing nets – or ghost gear – that would otherwise lurk in our oceans for up to 600 years, killing marine animals that get stuck within. As entangled carcasses decay, these nets resurface and restart the vicious cycle until they fully disintegrate. Currently in the oceans are at least 800 million kilograms of ghost gear, estimates UK-based NGO World Animal Protection. Annually, they snare at least 136,000 whales, seals, sea lions, turtles and dolphins – 45 percent of which the NGO says are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. 

Nets are in our seas because of deliberate abandonment by fishermen, especially illegal ones, as well as from entanglement and loss due to natural causes like hurricanes or tides. But without attractive incentives or convenient means of disposal being made available, motivation for retrieval is almost non-existent. 

And this is precisely what Econyl wants to change. 

Currently its technology is limited to recycling fishing nets and carpets and relies on its partners to process any byproducts, other polymers (synthetic material blends) and organic, plastic or metallic leftovers. However, it’s working to expand its scope. This magical transformation happens at its plant in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital and the first in Europe to commit to zero-waste (it’s working towards this target by 2025). Econyl sends its surplus thermal energy to heat a nearby waterpark in the city, saving it 2 million kilograms of CO2 emissions annually. 

“It is strange to have a fibre company that normally consumes a lot of oils and derivatives, very much energy-intensive, thinking that it can change the world,” says Aquafil Chairman and CEO Giulio Bonazzi on podcast NeoConversations, in an episode from this May. “A circular economy is the only way we can have a future… [Taking] raw materials from the planet and then [landfilling] them is not the right answer… the only way is to try to make things that never die and that have a second life, like nature does: at the end of the second life have a third one and [then] a fourth one.

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Derelict fishnets are silent killers of the sea

“We don’t give any limitation to our customers, to designers and this is very important because if you don’t make beautiful products that can be sustainable then people don’t buy them,” he says, adding that more than 700 fashion and interior brands are now sourcing from his company. “They must be nice [appealing] and they must be price-competitive.”

As demand for Econyl’s repurposed nylon grows, so does its demand for waste to maintain economy of scale. In its plant in Arizona alone, the company is recovering 25,000 tonnes of carpet annually and has agreements with a number of fashion brands to retrieve their manufacturing waste. As for fishing net collection, it currently partners with government bodies like Steveston Harbour Authority in Vancouver, Canada, NGOs like Global Ghost Gear Initiative, as well as community projects that encourage indigenous people living in coastal areas to participate in net-recovery initiatives. Aquafil also has its own net-retrieval programme, Healthy Seas, which has collected more than 152 tonnes of ghost gear across the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, Greece and Italy since 2013. 

A few other companies have made inroads with fishing-net recycling and repurposing, but on a much smaller scale. Recycled fishing-net skateboard decks, a sunglasses line and reusable water bottles are made by US-based micro brand Bureo, using a recycling plant in Chile. While its founders have moved most operations from LA to Santiago to reduce running costs, it looks set to remain a boutique operation.  Some outdoor furniture or fabric companies have also tried to use recycled fishing nets for environmentally-conscious products, but have typically turned to Econyl which offer so many go-to solutions in fibre or fabric types.  

Econyl’s operations still continue to pursue a broader range of synthetics and, interestingly, it’s shifted the environmental conversation from purely prevention to possible immediate tangible action, and on an impressive global scale too. 

“We need to study nature and learn how nature is doing things,” says Bonazzi. “This is really what we need to do to grant a future to our children and to the children of our children.

“Less invention, more discoveries.”