Audrey Choi: You’re listening to At Scale—A Sustainability Podcast from Morgan Stanley.
Erin Pelletier: We were off of Cape Elizabeth. There’s these million-dollar homes. It's such a beautiful coastline. There's a lighthouse. It's the quintessential coast of Maine. And then you think they have no idea what's under the water out in front of their house. And if we were to drain the ocean, it would surprise a lot of people and it would be really sad. And that's the wake-up call people need.
Choi: That wake-up call is lurking underneath pristine waters all around the world. From Cape Elizabeth, Maine to Sweden and Thailand. And it’s a big piece of a massive environmental problem we’re facing...plastic waste.
I’m Audrey Choi, Chief Sustainability Officer and Chief Marketing Officer at Morgan Stanley. On this season of At Scale, we’re exploring plastic waste—the surprising places we find it, the innovators working to solve the problem, and what it takes to make real change across communities, industries and the globe.
And today, it starts with lobster.
Steve Train: I get up some time around 3:30 or 4:00.
Choi: That‘s Steve Train. He’s a lobsterman who fishes the waters off Cape Elizabeth in Maine. Steve’s boat is named the wild Irish rose—a tribute to his two daughters. He’s been fishing his whole life. On the typical day, he’ll work ten to twelve hours—hauling and setting up to 800 lobster traps.
Train: First thing we usually do is take up to five to $700 worth of bait onto the boat. We have to go to the bait shop to get that. We check the fuel to make sure the tank’s full before we leave.
Choi: An essential part of Steve’s gear--what makes it possible for him to catch the lobsters that end up on our dinner plates—is plastic. A lot of it. Since the 1950’s, the fishing industry has been built on plastic. It makes gear stronger and fishing more efficient. But all that gear is also ending up at the bottom of our oceans. It even has a name: ghost gear.
Imagine this: 640,000 tons of fishing lines, nets and traps are dumped or lost in our waters globally every year. That’s nearly 65 Eiffel Towers worth in weight alone. Some nets can be two miles long and take 600 years to degrade. Plastics in our oceans cost $13 billion a year in financial losses to fisheries and in cleanup efforts. And it’s taking a deadly toll on marine life. According to the united nations, more than 100,000 animals like seals, whales and fish die every year because of plastic waste. Ghost gear is the largest source of macro plastic waste in the ocean.
Train: We don't try to lose gear. It's not intentional, it's not discarded. It's lost.
Choi: Steve is the last person who wants to lose gear. But storms and boat traffic sever lines, sending about 10-percent of his gear to the ocean floor. And those losses are expensive. It costs Steve about $150 to replace each trap. And when gear is gone, he can’t fish.
Train: And when we don't have the time it takes to replace it, we're not making money with it. We are trying to change the culture so people feel more responsible for getting it back instead of just moving on to the next gear. And there's a lot of us that do, but we're not fully there yet. The environment is what's giving you your living. So you might want to give a little back once in a while.
Choi: As a lobsterman, Steve is part of a $150 billion industry that includes other fishers catching cod, salmon, crab and shrimp. All of those fishing methods—the trawl lines, gill nets and traps—use a lot of plastic too. And Steve says everyone needs to take care of the place where they make a living. And that’s how he met Erin.
Erin Pelletier: My name is Erin Pelletier. I'm the executive director of the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation.
Choi: Erin’s nonprofit works with scientists and New England fishers to protect and sustain a healthy lobster fishery. About 12 years ago, Erin’s organization faced a challenge. There were new federal rules aimed at preventing whales and other marine life from getting tangled in gear. Basically, fishers had to swap out their floating plastic fishing lines with sinking, ground lines. But once fishers changed out their lines, Erin and some local groups worried that all the old plastic gear would end up dumped in landfills or the ocean. So they came up with a creative solution.
Pelletier: The way it worked was the fishermen would bring in that ground line that they could no longer use anymore and we would give them a voucher that was worth a certain amount to go buy the new rope that they needed to purchase. So it was sort of an economic relief program, if you will, as well as an environmental program.
Choi: That was a success. But now Erin had more than two million pounds of plastic fishing lines. That’s when her organization reached out to the community and the solutions got even more creative.
Pelletier: One was a recycler that ground up the rope into little plastic particles and they sort of melted them into trays that they use at the nursery for potting plants and things like that. And then the bulk of it actually went to local craftsmen who used the rope to weave outdoor doormats that you put outside your front door and they're all different colors.
Choi: Clearly this is innovative problem solving. But it happened on a pretty small scale. And there’s another challenge. Oceans don’t respect borders. What’s dumped in the waters off Maine will end up somewhere else in the world. The ghost-gear problem is global and on such a massive scale that tackling it can seem overwhelming.
Choi: There are a lot of people out there working on new technologies to replace tethered fishing lines, like the kind Steve uses, with ropeless systems. Picture an air tank that attaches to a trap. The trap sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor and—get this—when the fisher is ready to fish the trap—they use an app on their phone that activates the air tank—sending it shooting to the water’s surface. Sounds wild, doesn’t it?
But for many fishers like Steve, that technology is too expensive. He estimates it would cost him more than 40-thousand dollars to adopt this system. For larger boats, the bill could hit several hundred thousand dollars or more. And a good idea is only as good as it’s scalability. Since most fishers operate on thin margins, transitioning to new technology isn’t going to happen until the price comes down. So people like Steve and Erin were looking for a more immediate and less expensive solution. Erin says it’s called gear grabs.
[GHOST GEAR RECOVERY AMBIENCE]
Pelletier: We took out a 7.2-ton mass of rope. It was all rope—just nets, rope, any kind of rope you can imagine that could be down there, was down there.
Choi: Steve Train and other fishers volunteer their time and boats to go to known ghost-gear graves—spots where massive mounds of plastic gear have been lost. Then a salvage diver drops into the water to attach floats around the gear. Cranes and grapples hoist the tangled mess of nets, traps and lines onto the deck of the boat.
On one trip, Steve says they hauled so much plastic gear out of the ocean, it was the size of an 18-wheeler.
Train: It's really neat to see the divers come up with a big smile and give you the thumbs up, telling us they're ready and that they found this. But it's only the beginning. You know, it's days of work.
Choi: Now this sounds pretty basic—and you’re probably thinking: You lose something, you go get it. But like Erin said at the top of this episode: Most people have no idea that all of this plastic is sitting under the water.
Pelletier: Anyone who wants to eat seafood, you're going to have to realize that there is a [downside] to fishing—and it's losing gear. That's just part of it. It's like having to drive a car to work. It's just part of your daily routine. And, you know, I think the way we approached it was to take it slow, take it steady, and explain the situation to the people when they do want to point fingers. You know, this is how fishing works. Have you ever been on a lobster boat? Do you even know what the gear is like when it's rigged?
Choi: Erin says the first step to finding real solutions starts with educating fishers and the public.
Pelletier: I think we've done a good job with that. And the more fishermen get involved that see that it's a positive, it's catching on. I've had guys call and ask us, when can we do another one? And we could do this every day for the next million years. And it's just a matter of funding, finding money to pay for the help, pay for the disposal of it.
Choi: OK, so we have an example of something happening at the local level, but since the ghost-gear problem is global, I wanted to understand what’s being done on a global scale. So I called Ingrid Giskes. She’s the director of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative. It’s the world’s largest alliance of groups tackling ghost gear. It includes organizations like Erin’s, plus governments from around the world—and scientists, seafood companies, and NGOs.
Ingrid Giskes: We bring people together that normally wouldn't maybe have the chance to talk to each other. So it could be a government ministry together with a small technology startup company and an on the ground organization in a remote location, all working together to tackle this problem. And I think that makes it so special and unique.
Choi: The initiative started in 2015. No one even knew what ghost gear was then. But Ingrid says a big turning point came in 2017. That’s when the U.N. held its first ocean conference, and it sounded an alarm. Oceans play a crucial role in contributing to global food security, the eradication of poverty and economic development. And the U.N. recognized that our oceans were getting sicker every year. What came out of the conference was the first set of concrete goals to conserve and sustainably use the oceans. An immediate target? Reduce marine pollution by 2025.
Giskes: And I think everyone realized that 2025 was just around the corner, but also that ghost gear is, in some ways, an easier problem to tackle rather than single-use plastics because less actors are involved and it's clear what the pathway forward is.
Choi: Ingrid says another big thing happened in 2017.
Giskes: On the corporate side, I really felt a turning point. Also in 2017 when a big seafood company, Thai Union Group, joined the initiative. And once we had one big seafood company speak up and say, “Guys, this is a really big problem. We need to consider ghost gear when we talk about seafood sustainability,” all the others started to turn their head, as well, and started to listen.
Choi: Finally, some governments and corporations were starting to pay attention. But Ingrid says that bringing together so many different stakeholders is a massive challenge.
Giskes: When we talk to governments, we generally talk and highlight the interconnectedness of the ghost-gear problem. We highlight how it's an important food security problem, how it's an environmental problem, an animal welfare problem, how it's so interconnected with so many issues that our ocean faces today. Climate change causes more bad weather events, hurricanes. So more gear will be lost if it's not managed appropriately.
Choi: Ingrid says local fishing communities require a different approach. One that highlights the economic impact ghost gear has by diminishing fish stocks.
Giskes: We often see that just having a demonstration project where we remove a net and really show what a ghost net looks like, how many fish and animals are entangled in it, how it's smothering reefs and ecosystems; really shows the problem to fishers and make them take notice and sit up.
Choi: And when it comes to seafood companies, Ingrid reminds them about the cost of replacing lost gear. And she says that any company that markets itself as a sustainable fishery needs to have a policy on ghost gear. Now that Ingrid has identified the stakeholders, she said her organization has three top priorities in tackling plastic waste—starting with data. Their ghost-gear data portal is the largest hub of information on lost gear, collecting evidence of lost nets and lines.
Giskes: We do that by working together with a couple of scientists and researchers, but also by encouraging data submission to the data portal and the use of our ghost-gear reporting app, which is freely available to everyone.
Choi: The second priority is defining and promoting best practices and policies.
Giskes: So I know it doesn't sound very sexy, but it's very effective. So we're taking a very inclusive approach by identifying actions that basically the whole fishing-gear supply chain can take to help address this problem.
Choi: On a basic level, it’s a guidebook for innovations all along the supply chain to prevent plastic from entering the oceans. And to recover what’s already there. That means working with gear designers to use biodegradable materials or manufacturing gear to make it easier to recycle, putting recycling containers at ports so fishers have a convenient place to dispose of old gear. It also means encouraging seafood companies to stop sourcing fish from high-risk fisheries. And the third priority of the global ghost-gear initiative is boots-on-the-ground projects, like the gear-recovery efforts in Maine.
Giskes: We've worked to implement new technologies in Jamaica and Grenada and in Vanuatu. We've trialed gear-tracking technologies in Indonesia, and then also help set up recycling programs all around the world to really show that fishing gear is a valuable commodity.
Choi: You talked about recovering the gear and recycling it and really reclaiming some of that value. A lot of ocean plastic is not very recyclable or reusable because it's degraded. It's gotten all sorts of other substances in it. How do you think about the economic salvage value of ghost gear?
Giskes: If you look at the number of companies that have started recently in the last couple of years making new products out of ghost gear, I would say it is becoming economically profitable and viable to do so.
Giskes: I'm sure you've seen, for example, the company BUREO, they make skateboards and hats out of recycled fishing gear. There has been sneakers made out of fishing gear, plastic pellets, carpet tiles, all sorts of applications. However, I see the challenge in recycling fishing gear at the moment is the lack of central recycling hubs. So there's still a lot of logistics and transportation costs involved with moving fishing gear or end-of-life gear to the right locations for it then being recycled. We've had this one project in Alaska where we were repurposing some of the end-of-life fishing nets alongside some of our partners, using empty shipping containers that were moving around the world regardless and filling them within the fishing gear and then getting it to the right recycling facility. But hopefully in the future, as more companies start making money out of this kind of work, it will become more and more profitable.
Choi: What Ingrid said got me thinking. As innovators look to make new products out of recycled gear, marine plastic waste needs to be seen as profitable. So could there be a global market with a value attached to ghost gear and incentives offered for its salvage?
Giskes: Yeah, for sure. That's definitely happening in the European Union around that end producer responsibility scheme. So an EPR scheme for ghost fishing gear, and the European Union actually included that in that plastics directive so that fishing gear would be traced and tracked from source to end and would be repurposed accordingly. With ghost gear, in making it an economically profitable business, the key challenge is that we have found is the logistics, but also supply, having a continuous supply of ghost gear or end-of-life fishing gear, going to those recycling facilities and getting there on time and the volume of gear. So having a large enough volume come through to facilitate, you know, repurposing it into other materials.
Choi: So if you had the ability to have any scientist, technologist, materials engineer, inventor, entrepreneur at your beck and call, what would you ask them to invent or develop or improve that you think would make the biggest difference, in terms of the technology of addressing the issue of ghost gear?
Giskes: Well, if I win the lottery three times, I would say, first of all, we are already investing in innovative technology, tracking and managing our fishing gear. However, one of the problems that we see with those new technology advances is making them available worldwide to the most disadvantaged communities as well—at a cost price that is feasible for them. That would be a dream come true. Because, at the moment, we have a lot of pilot projects trialing this technology. But then, actually having it available to those communities, I think that would be a key win for our ocean and those communities, as well, to feel that everyone is really included.
And then secondly, I would say investing in central recycling hubs around the world. For example, in North America or Latin America, there's no central recycling hub available at the moment yet. So having more opportunities for communities to really collect. And then sending it at a reasonable cost price to those facilities for it to be recycled and see a net benefit come back to the community as well, so that the fishers really benefit from recycling and collecting their fishing gear.
And then thirdly, I think really investing, like we have been doing, in fostering dialog between actors. We always see at our annual meetings when we bring all the stakeholders together—that's really where the magic happens, and where new innovative approaches and solutions happen.
Choi: Just how realistic is it to turn recycled ghost gear into a new product that consumers want? My team reached out to Erin Meezan, the chief sustainability officer at Interface. Interface is a billion-dollar flooring manufacturer. You might even have some of their products at home or in the office—the Flor carpet tiles, F—L—O—R, that come in different colors and patterns—that’s Interface.
Now, when you think about innovation and sustainability, carpet probably isn’t the first thing you think of. Most carpets are made entirely of plastic. And most carpets, about 73% of them, end up in landfills. That’s nearly five billion pounds of waste every year.
Back in 1994, customers started asking Interface what it was doing for the environment.
Erin Meezan: And Interface had no answer. And we were competing for one of the first green buildings in California, got asked that question, didn't have a response. The company had no environmental mission. We had no idea how much our supply chain was kind of fossil fuel derived. And we lost that bid. And it got back to the founder of the company, Ray Anderson, and he said, we're going to figure out how to answer this question.
Choi: Interface hadn’t really thought beyond just making flooring. And until then, most carpeting used virgin nylon yarn, which is plastic—that’s all that was available. But they found something surprising. It turned out that fishing nets and carpet tiles use the same kind of high-quality nylon.
Meezan: Because there's so much energy and footprint associated with making that nylon, in its first iteration, we were trying to find ways to use recycled nylon. One of the best things that we can do to reduce the environmental impact of our carpet tile products is to source more recycled inputs to get recycled yarn.
Choi: So Erin says Interface looked at its supply chain.
Meezan: And we realized if we could collaborate with others to inject more of that ocean waste into our supply chain and get it to AquaFil, they could deliver to us recycled content yarn, which would have a huge impact on us making more sustainable products.
Choi: AquaFil is the company that supplies the nylon yarn for Interface’s carpets. And they decided to work together, sourcing discarded fishing nets and recycling their own old carpet tiles. Now, this major upheaval didn’t happen overnight. There was a lot of trial and error—because at the end of the day, they didn’t want to sacrifice the quality of their product. Erin says that Interface needed a reliable source of discarded nets, so they decided to build their own supply chain. And to do that, Interface piloted a project called “Net Works.” It started as a partnership with the zoological society of London and AquaFil, and most importantly, with local fishers. The project launched in Danajon Nank in the Philippines. The local economy there heavily relies on fishing. But it was also seeing the devastating impacts. Thousands of miles of ghost gear littered their waters each year. Here’s how the project works. Local fishers are trained to collect fishing nets and clean them.
Meezan: Those get shipped to our supplier, Aquafil, who then pays back the communities for those nets and they are processed into recycled nylon that then gets set to Interface that we use to make products. So that's a very community-based model and has since scaled outside of the Philippines to Africa. And it's a really interesting model for how can companies shift their supply chain and use waste resources in a way that, not just benefits communities, but benefits the health of the ocean and then ultimately benefits companies because they're making more sustainable products.
Choi: It’s expensive to invest in new ways of doing things. But Erin says by collaborating with other companies and organizations, interface shared the costs. And there were other strategic decisions the company made to redesign their entire system.
Meezan: I think one thing Interface recognized early on, even when we first began our sustainability journey, is that we actually need some people who aren't wedded to making carpet and rubber to come in and actually challenge our thinking about what a recycled material supply chain actually looks like. I mean, that can also be another bottleneck when you're asking the same people who are within a system to change the system overnight.
Choi: System change doesn’t happen overnight. But demand for new products that also tackle issues like ghost gear is growing. And Erin says that should push all companies to reevaluate how they do business.
Meezan: It's this shift from “Your business can exist by itself as long as it doesn't harm the environment” to “How does your business solve some of the world's largest challenges?” You have to sort of answer two questions: Are we doing the best job at our particular company, regardless of what we make? Mixers, shoes, carpet tiles? Are we doing a good enough job to keep plastics within our systems so that they don't get out? So, for us, that's things like, are we working hard enough to recycle products and bring them back from customers? Are we doing internal recycling? Are we challenging our supply chain? But then, I also think there's a really compelling question, which is: Are you doing enough or do you have an opportunity with ocean plastic waste? Like, can we create a demand for that—that is super helpful and useful, that is really challenging company by company?
Choi: And Erin is right. There are still a lot of challenges to solving the plastic-waste problem. But just like the fishers in Maine, part of the solution lies in creating opportunities and incentives for whole industries to take risks on new technologies. There’s collaboration with local communities to prevent waste in the first place. Manufacturers need to make their products more sustainable. And businesses have to think about their supply chains and how to upcycle plastic waste into new products.
Next time, we learn how plastic has invaded your closet, and how high-tech and old-fashioned collaboration could redesign the textile industry.
Carmen Gama: I can't change this industry by myself. Here is how I'm doing it. Come and learn from us. Take it to your corporations. And if you can do it on a large or even bigger scale, you will be able to have a huge impact. And all together have a huge impact.
Choi: I’m Audrey Choi, Chief Sustainability Officer and Chief Marketing Officer at Morgan Stanley. You can find out more about what we’re doing to tackle plastic waste at www.morganstanley.com/plasticwasteresolution.