We’re treating our oceans like a litter bin, and the consequences aren’t pretty.

Twenty years ago, the United States Academy of Sciences reckoned about 6.4 million tonnes of marine litter ended up in the sea every year – of which almost 5.6 million tonnes was estimated to come from merchant shipping. To put it another way, some eight million items of marine litter are believed to enter marine environments every day, about five million of which are solid waste thrown overboard or lost from ships.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, ocean conservation, net-works

One of the major contributors to marine litter is abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG). Despite a lack of information on the proportion of marine litter that ALDFG comprises, in the United Kingdom, fishing debris such as lines, nets, buoys and floats makes up about 11.2 percent of marine debris, according to the Marine Conservation Society.

And the impact of all that ALDFG is a litany of horror. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) blames it for the entanglement of protected species including turtles, seabirds and marine mammals; navigational hazards; beach debris; the introduction of synthetic material into the marine food web; a range of costs related to clean-up operations and impacts on business activities; and – most creepily of all – the introduction of alien species transported by ALDFG. Moreover, abandoned fishing nets are the primary cause of “ghost fishing” – where nets lost or no longer in use wreck reefs and trap big and small fish.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, ocean conservation, net-works

Though the FAO notes wryly that, “fishing gear has been abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded ever since fishing began”, the extent and impact of ALDFG is believed to have grown significantly in the past half-century with increasing levels of fishing capacity and activity in the world’s oceans. And, the FAO points out, “the impact of fishing gear in the environment has been exacerbated by the introduction of non-biodegradable fishing gear, primarily plastics, which are generally more persistent in the environment than natural materials”.

Recognition of the problem is required at every level, from the international to the local. Clever ideas are needed, too. And one possible solution has been developed by a carpet company called Interface, whose dedication to sustainability has evolved into its Mission Zero commitment – “a promise to eliminate any negative impact Interface has on the environment by 2020”.

That promise includes sourcing entirely recycled material for its carpet tile by 2020. (By 2014, Interface had reportedly sourced 50 per cent of its raw materials from recycled or bio-based materials.)

As part of its commitment, Interface set up the Net-Works programme – a partnership that enables local residents in developing countries to give discarded fishing nets a second life by collecting them for carpet tile production.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, ocean conservation, net-works

As part of its commitment, Interface set up the Net-Works programme – a partnership that enables local residents in developing countries to give discarded fishing nets a second life by collecting them for carpet tile production.

The project adheres to Interface’s strategy of turning waste into a raw material and, in turn, creates local jobs and establishes a community-based supply chain. Indeed, Net-Works enables fishing communities to sell discarded nets back into the global marketplace and thus provides a continuous source of recycled materials for use in carpet tile production.

To date, residents of countries such as the Philippines and Cameron have collected over 80 metric tons of discarded fishing nets – nets that would otherwise have damaged the oceans. Net-Works therefore helps to cleaning up the seas and oceans and encourages local people to take an active ownership role in re-establishing the ecological balance.

The programme has a significant socio-economic dimension, too: it has seen participants earn supplemental income equal to over 230,500 additional meals. And it turns marine waste into a raw material for businesses, reducing production costs, creating both jobs and economic growth in fishing communities. Net profit, indeed.

This innovation is part of Sustainia100; a study of 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The study is conducted annually by Scandinavian think-tank Sustainia that works to secure deployment of sustainable solutions in communities around the world. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at www.sustainia.me – Discover more solutions at @sustainia and #100solutions

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