Fishing Nets to Furniture: Gravity Wave’s Plan to Clean The Ocean

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It’s More Than Straws

“One word. Plastics.” That predictive advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character in 1967’s The Graduate has far more resonance in 2024 than it did 57 years ago.

Over 400 million tons of plastic are produced globally every year. Global plastic waste more than doubled to 353 million tons from 2000 to 2019. According to Roland Geyer, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans by weight than there are fish.

The prevailing popular notion is that most of this plastic is from consumer waste in the form of bottles, containers, cartons, food wrappers, straws, cups, plates, and single-use bags. And that’s not wrong. But there’s a more pervasive source of plastic pollution in the ocean: discarded, lost, and abandoned fishing nets.

According to a 2019 Greenpeace report, abandoned fishing gear is the largest source of plastic pollution in the ocean, making up around 10% of the ocean’s plastic waste. That number can go much higher locally. A 2022 study in Scientific Reports revealed that 75% to 85% of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is attributable to offshore fishing and aquaculture activities. The GPGP, twice the size of Texas, has been regarded by scientists and the general population as a shocking bellwether for what we can expect to see across the oceans in the not-so-distant future.

Abandoned fishing gear is the largest source of plastic pollution in the ocean. (Photo by Gravity Wave)

Fishing gear also makes up a much higher proportion of large pieces of plastic. For example, fishing gear accounts for approximately 70% of plastics more than 20 cm (just under 8”) in size that float on the surface, and 86% of plastic waste on the ocean floor.

It’s estimated that between 600,000 to 800,000 metric tons of ghost gear enter the ocean each year, with some of it lost during storms and some deliberately dumped. And this is likely a conservative estimate.

“Ghost nets” — fishing gear that has been lost or abandoned in our oceans — are deadly for sea life, and marine habitats such as coral reefs. Abandoned, lost, and discarded fishing gear threatens 66% of marine animals, including all sea turtle species, and 50% of seabirds.

According to the UN Environment Program, some of the abandoned nets can be as big as football fields and take up to 600 years to break down, shedding microplastics as they degrade. And in some parts of the ocean, 85% of the plastic pollution is from fishing gear. Estimates suggest that more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals, and turtles get caught and drowned by ghost nets every year.

Nick Mallos, Director of the Trash Free Seas Program at Ocean Conservancy says that “Ghost gear is the deadliest form of marine litter out there. It is a very serious form of debris that has a very real impact.”

Gravity Wave

Having read thus far, one would not be faulted for feeling some despair. But there’s good news, too.

Amaia and Julen Rodriguez are co-founders — and siblings — of a startup called Gravity Wave that employs partnerships with local fishers along with blockchain technology to transform recovered fishing nets into furniture for public spaces and innovative offices and homes.

Amaia and Julen, co-founders of Gravity Wave. (Photo by Gravity Wave)

Amaia and Julen were born and raised in a little village near Pamplona in Spain. Julen has, in fact, run with the bulls many times. The siblings spent their holidays at their grandfather’s home in Calpe, a seaside town on the Costa Brava, known for its spectacular Mediterranean beaches.

Amaia went on to study international business in Madrid, after which she began a trek through Southeast Asia. Amaia was particularly interested in the sparsely inhabited little islands around Malaysia and Indonesia, and especially what she assumed would be pristine beaches. That’s not what she found.

The amount of plastic covering most of the beaches she visited was shocking. “There was so much plastic that I felt traumatized. Beaches were entirely covered in layers of plastic. I’d never seen anything like this.”

At the same time, Julen had begun his studies in entrepreneurship, with a deep interest in social impact. He met a fellow student from Greece who had opened a fishing school to teach sustainable practices. His students told him about the massive amount of plastic they found while out at sea fishing. And they told him that they threw it back.

Julen left his studies, Amaia left her marketing job, and knowing nothing about plastics or fishing, dove into research on both. Like many of us, they were surprised to find that much of what the fisherman were encountering were discarded fishing nets. They are made of nylon, a plastic that doesn’t decompose. So aside from releasing microplastics and profoundly disrupting ecosystems, they continue to do their job, which is to catch fish, along with other wildlife like turtles and porpoises. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation, hundreds of millions of marine animals are killed or injured every year due to discarded fishing nets.

“With my background in marketing, and Julen’s knowledge of entrepreneurship, we came up with a plan that would pay the fishing community to collect the nets, which we would then manufacture into products like panels and furniture, and the proceeds would go back to the fishing community. It’s the circular economy in practice.”

After a shaky start with a failed Kickstarter, Amaia and Julen secured a few angel investors and found a manufacturer who would make phone cases out of the recovered nets. Yet another setback, the phone cases were shoddy, and the manufacturer was difficult to work with.

As is often the case with startups, it was time for a moment of clarity. “Why did we create Gravity Wave? Why leave everything behind to make phone cases? How can we clean the maximum amount of plastic from the ocean and transform it into valuable products? Phone cases wasn’t it.”

Gravity Waves’ pivot was underway. From the beginning, Gravity Wave was collecting all manner of plastic. But they quickly realized that the preponderance of what the fishers were collecting, about 40%, were nets. So that’s where they decided to place their focus.

Both local and industry fishing operations were interested because taking nets to landfills was expensive. Now they would be paid for those nets. The next step was to find a recycling manufacturer. This was not so easy. “We called hundreds, until one recycler told us that if we could find a product and a market for it, they’d work with us.”

Nets are cleaned, cut, and shredded into tiny filaments. (Photo by Gravity Wave)

Amaia explained the process. “Now, the fishers are paid per kilo to collect the ghost fishing nets and transfer them to our recycling plant. The nets are cleaned, cut, and shredded into tiny filaments and then further pressed into plates in the factory. Then they are manufactured into furniture for a variety of uses like park benches and tables.”

Filaments can be molded into new, long-lasting products like stadium seats. (Photo by Gravity Wave)

These days, Amaia and Julen are excited about a new partnership with a Spanish football team for stadium seats. “This is life changing for Gravity Wave. Panels are one thing. But stadium seats have the potential to impact millions.”

Speaking of Impact…

As part of the URBAN-X by MINI startup platform, the MINI Impact Program supports early-stage startups working to make life more sustainable, livable, and resilient. In 2023, the program expanded, looking for the best ideas in eight countries on four continents. Gravity Wave was one of the first startups to work with the MINI Impact program.

Sarah Schappert, URBAN-X Director said that it all began with wider demand for the work URBAN-X has been noted for since 2016. “Responding to demand to create a presence with URBAN-X from various countries where MINI is represented, we’ve globally expanded the URBAN-X platform through our MINI Impact Program. It’s an extension that allows us to maximize our impact amid growing climate challenges in cities around the world.”

About Gravity Wave, Tristan Bel, Platform Director at URBAN-X says that “One of our core interests is circularity, with a specific focus on upcycling waste. Gravity Wave is not only making remarkable strides by retrieving plastic from the oceans to create urban furniture and other products, but they are also driving awareness and educating the public about environmental sustainability.”

To that end, Gravity Wave is a perfect match for the MINI Impact program. Using plastic detritus from one ecosystem, the ocean, to build furniture for others, in cities and stadiums, is exactly what the program is about. Employing blockchain technology with advanced manufacturing processes has Gravity Wave poised for the future.

“URBAN-X and the MINI Impact program gave us the opportunity to go outside the EU, speak to people in the U.S., get inspired at their Brooklyn Navy yard headquarters, share our ongoing project with extraordinary mentors in tech and marketing, and opened amazing opportunities for us.”

What’s Next?

Amaia says that “Open source has enormous potential to track, from source to recycling plant, what types of waste we are dealing with, and how to prevent it in the first place. Blockchain is key to this process.”

“Ultimately, our dream is to run out of plastic to recycle.”

Written by
Thomas Falconer
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