Surfers Turn Abandoned Fishing Nets Into Skateboards, Sunglasses

A start-up in Chile has recycled 20 tons of ocean plastic trash over the past year—and that's just the beginning.
(Photo: Bureo)
Sep 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

Ocean plastic pollution is one of those environmental problems so enormous it can be paralyzing. The statistics are staggering—in greater Los Angeles alone, 10 metric tons of plastic slip out to sea every single day. A new study finds that 99 percent of seabirds will carry plastic in their stomachs by 2050. In the age of the Anthropocene, plastic will be our everlasting legacy.

A few years ago, three American surfers were hanging out in Sydney, feeling generally bummed out by the unfathomable amount of plastic accumulating in the oceans, choking marine life, and fouling fisheries. They longed to leave behind their comfortable corporate jobs to do more rewarding work—to somehow slow the degradation of the high seas.

The trio soon found themselves in Santiago, Chile, in the Startup Chile program—an incubator run by the government to spur innovation at home and abroad. They decided to launch Bureo, a sustainable business built around diverting a substantial amount of plastic destined for the ocean—fishing nets—and recycling them into something they and many of their friends use every day—cruiser skateboards.

“When I came to Chile I saw this hotbed of opportunity, an incredible wild natural environment, and a great support system for entrepreneurs,” said Ben Kneppers, a Bureo cofounder. “We thought, ‘What if we could tackle this issue that really pulls on our heart strings?’ ”

Sebastián Díaz of Startup Chile said that Bureo is the kind of start-up his organization wants. “They are creating social impact and solving real problems,” he said. “They were just starting when they got to Santiago, but after hearing their pitch and seeing how strong the team is, we were convinced about the huge impact that they could do in Chile and around the world.”

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(Photo: Bureo)

In Chile there is no system in place to manage the disposal of old fishing nets, so much of the material is burned on the beach or tossed overboard. (Discarded fishing nets, which continue to trap fish, dolphins, whales, and other marine mammals for decades, account for 10 percent of all ocean plastic.)

The Bureo team slowly, and in broken Spanish, built relationships with traditional fishers and the big commercial operators to set up a collection system for the nets. For every kilo of nets gathered, Bureo commits funds to local nonprofits to finance infrastructure improvements in fishing communities.

“We’re still proving this model,” said Kneppers. “But we want to provide this service to every fishing community not just in Chile but globally, and for that we need to have an outlet for this material.”

Nylon nets are ground up in Santiago and then molded and pressed into a fish-shaped skateboard. Called the Minnow, the board is sold in surf shops from Tokyo and Sydney to Zurich and San Francisco. On the heels of the Minnow’s success, Bureo has partnered with a Chilean company, Karün, to create a line of sunglasses made from recycled fishing nets. They recently launched the collaboration on Kickstarter and blasted past their fund-raising goal.

“We know that we’re not saving the world on our own, and these products aren’t the only solution,” said David Stover, a Bureo cofounder. “We started working with three fishing communities, and now we have eight communities. We’ve collected 20 tons in the last 12 months, and our goal is to do four times that in the next year. We know it’s just a very small part, but we think it could be scalable and replicable around the world.”

Nik Strong-Cvetich, executive director of Save the Waves Coalition, agrees that making a dent in the problem of ocean plastic hinges on scalability.

“Right now, these guys are getting the proof of concept shown that this technology can make a bunch of different products,” said Cevetich. “As products diversify and demand grows, you'll see a huge impact. There is unfortunately a pretty limitless supply of nets and marine plastics for their products.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the executive director fo the Save the Waves Coalition. It is Nik Strong-Cvetich.