February 1, 2013

Werner Braun: Creating a silk purse from a sow’s ear

— There’s a lot of talk these days about the problems of over-fishing worldwide and the impact the practice has on the environment. One of the most troublesome issues has been what to do with all of the discarded fishing nets.

According to a recent report from the United Nations, abandoned and lost fishing gear, including massive nylon fishing nets, make up about 10 percent of the trash that collects in the nation’s oceans.

It’s illegal, and rightly so, to dump the approximately 640,000 tons of used nets into the ocean because of the impact those nets have on innocent wildlife. That practice has become known as “ghost fishing” in the fishing industry because the nets often trap fish, dolphins, seabirds and turtles on the ocean floor.

The solution for commercial fishermen has been to either deliver those fishing lines to “the dump,” cluttering up landfills with nylon material into perpetuity, or to dispose of these now useless nets through incineration.

Neither of these solutions screams sustainability.

Fortunately, our industry has come up with some creative solutions to economically reward commercial and independent fishermen and their communities for their “partnership,” while providing the carpet industry with viable recycled goods, hence helping the environment at the same time.

Both Aquafil USA, a global supplier of polyamide (nylon) polymer yarns, and Interface Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet, have embraced the idea of recycling these nylon nets to create beautiful, strong, long-lasting carpet material.

Aquafil, for example, has discovered that multi-filament nets, the kind currently used in fish farms, can be cleaned and baled, then sent to one of their industrial processing plants where they are processed into valuable commodities. They began buying discarded nets and lines, reclaiming the nylon and transforming it into new carpet fibers.

This led Aquafil to partner with fishermen’s associations, community groups and marine fisheries to recycle nets and lines that are no longer useful to them.

It’s a win-win. Instead of fishermen having to pay landfills to make space for tons of non-biodegradable material, Aquafil is paying the fishermen for their discarded nets which are then converted into beautiful, colorful carpet fibers.

Likewise, Interface has initiated a six-month pilot program to turn discarded fishing nets into new carpet tiles while providing income to the communities that collect the nets.

Interface is soon to begin a partnership with the Zoological Society of London to introduce Net-Works, the pilot program which will involve working with the coastal fishing community of Danajon Bank in the Philippines. The process will allow local community groups to oversee the collection, processing and transportation of these large nets. The money the locals collect from selling these materials will be used to finance economic development programs in their community.

“We hope that projects like Net-Works will further reduce the company’s reliance on virgin raw materials while fulfilling an important social mission,” said Nigel Stansfield, Interface’s chief innovations officer, noting that the company has an ambitious green agenda of eliminating its environmental footprint by 2020.

The bottom line is that in these cases, as in numerous others, what’s good for the industry is good for the environment. And vice versa.

Increasingly, consumers will find that the carpet that now graces the floors of their homes and businesses has had dual purposes — and that its manufacture has inadvertently contributed to the kinds of “green” sustainability solutions that are critical to our future.

Werner Braun is president of Dalton-based Carpet and Rug Institute.