In recognition of Earth Day, KUCB talked to Nicole Baker of Net Your Problem and Steve Tompkins, City of Unalaska Deputy Director of Public Utilities, about efforts to recycle fishing nets here in Unalaska.
This interview originally aired on KUCB on April 22, 2021. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Nicole Baker: I used to be a fisheries observer. So once I graduated with my master's degree in marine biology, I was working as an observer for Saltwater. And so starting in 2010, I came up primarily during the summers, and I've been stationed in Unalaska, Akutan and Kodiak observing primarily on trawl vessels. It was at the end of my last contract that I became aware of a thing that Adidas was doing to make sneakers out of fishing gear, and the light bulb clicked. I just realized, oh, my gosh, that nets are made out of plastic, it had never occurred to me. So that's what led me to start the business and to start working with different recycling companies that can process the gear back into their raw plastic. We collect fishing gear, end-of-life fishing gear, which is just stuff that fishermen are finished using, and we send it to recycling companies, so that it can be ground up into plastic pellets. The types of plastic that we have are polyethylene, polypropylene and nylon. And then those plastic pellets get sold on to the global plastics market and get manufactured into a wide variety of products. So we're at the bottom of the supply chain, liaising with the fishermen and collecting that gear from them.
KUCB: When we last checked in with you in 2017, you were actually shipping nets, I believe to Denmark. Can you tell us a little bit about where the nets go when they leave Unalaska?
Baker: When I first talked with Zoë in 2017, that was my first attempt at net recycling. So a lot has changed since then. But we are still collecting gear from Unalaska. We've been doing that since 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and now I'm hoping to come at the end of June this year to collect more gear. And yes, Denmark is one of the places that we send the gear to be recycled. But over the past couple of years, we've expanded to include some of the other plastic types that I mentioned and working with multiple different kinds of recyclers.
KUCB: So when you're in Unalaska, doing the gear collection, what does that look like?
Baker: The business does not physically require me to be there but it does help with outreach to the fishing industry and encouraging participation by different vessels. Ultimately, once the gear has been identified as being at its end of life or junk, then it gets loaded up on to a flatbed trailer and gets trucked over to a storage yard on the spit and then Mike Lloyd [of Aleutian Expeditors] will load it into 40-foot export containers. So we load the gear right into the containers and then it gets sent to whichever recycling partner is most suitable for the type of gear that we've collected.
KUCB: So you're expecting to be here in late June. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you'll be doing when you're here this summer?
Baker: The plans for this summer in Unalaska are for me and my colleague to come up towards the end of June after B Season has started. And to do some outreach with the fishing community and get more people to recycle their gear. I'm also going to be working with the City [of Unalaska] on sorting through what they have currently taken in in their nets and lines section of the landfill to see if we can recycle any of that gear.The only gear types that we're not currently able to recycle are sink line from the crab fishery, and also halibut long lines. So we need to sort of dig through the piles at the landfill and see if there's trawl web or other types of line that we are able to recycle.
KUCB: Well, that's a great segue to bring Steve Tompkins from the City of Unalaska into the conversation and hear more about the City's efforts to reduce the footprint of the local landfill.
Steve Tompkins: I'm the Deputy Director of Public Utilities for the City for the last 18 or 19 months and along with keeping the City compliant with an alphabet soup of government agencies, I help oversee the operations of the powerhouse wastewater treatment plant, the water division line crew and pertaining to what we're talking about today, our solid waste facility.
KUCB: I imagine that based on our economy here in Unalaska, there's quite a bit of net in the Unalaska landfill. Can you tell us a little bit about what that looks like and what the City's role is in this project
Tompkins: We have about 300 tons of fishing net that’s come into the landfill. It's sitting in super sacks, like a mountain of super sacks full of net. The best place for the City to be [involved in] something like this is to be in a facilitator role because we're non-political. We want to do what's right for the environment but we also have to be aware of our ratepayers. So the best place for us to be is to charge roughly what it would cost to recycle the item as it comes in and then make those tipping fees as cheap as possible to encourage participation. That’s a huge challenge, and in the case of fishing nets we’re not there. We don't charge enough but we also want those nets to come into the landfill where they can be dealt with properly. Our challenges are well known, I mean, we've got a very limited footprint for our landfill and closure and post-closure costs are super expensive. In studies that we've done, we value each year of extended landfill life at about a million dollars to give you an idea of what's going on.
KUCB: It sounds like the City's looked at a lot at different ways of reducing that footprint of the landfill and making it a little bit more sustainable for our community. So how does the work that Net Your Problem is doing play into that?
Tompkins: This is actually pretty straightforward because landfill operations are essentially dictated by two opposing forces. You have economics and you have values. We're super lucky to be in a community that values the environment – I mean, everybody does. So we already have that buy in, but then you have the economics and not everybody really wants to pay what's required to recycle the goods. They don't really want to see that in their rates. But it just so happens that in the case of nets, it's basically almost equivalent – shipping them to waste management where they would either put them in a gasifier or bury him in one of their hundreds of landfills, or to have Net Your Problem turn them into useful items: cell phone cases, whatever the item may be, I actually have a potholder at home, which is made from recycled gear. It costs almost the same to bury it in the ground or to turn it into new stuff. That kind of removes some of the opposing forces – the economics and the values – where there's a rare alignment of money and the right thing to do. So that's where Net Your Problem comes in for us.
KUCB: Let's talk a little bit to potential partners here in Unalaska: what they should do, how they should get involved and what your message is to our community?
Baker: Yeah, so I'll probably be there towards the end of June, as I mentioned earlier, right after the start of B Season, and just walking the docks and talking with anybody that would be interested in disposing of their gear this way with me. I think Steve and I are both in agreement that it's much easier to manage the waste before it goes over the scales at the landfill. I think over the course of the four years that we've done this, we’ve recycled gear for maybe about 20 different vessels and that's not just in Unalaska. We're also working with lobster fisheries in Maine and in California and in other places in Alaska, but we'd love to increase that number and just have more vessels participate with us. We've heard stories of vessels that have net in storage 15 or 20 years because there really isn't a good option for them for what to do with it. So they just continue to pay to keep it in storage. And so I'd like to get rid of all that legacy gear, but at the same time provide solutions for fishermen moving forward. So that next year, if you have a net to get rid of you know what to do with it, you know who to call. We're not trying to be a one-off project-based opportunity. We're trying to be a long-term waste management solution for this type of gear in Unalaska.
KUCB: Did you have anything else to add either one of you? We'll start with Steve.
Tompkins: As Nicole stated, because trawl nets are very expensive to send to the landfill, we really encourage her efforts to collect the stuff at the dock. That way, it's not even brought across the scale. By participating in this project, the city is demonstrating our good stewardship of the island.
KUCB: And Nicole, is there anything I should have asked you that I didn't, or any closing remarks?
Baker: Well, just in case anybody is listening or reading that does not reside in Unalaska, we also have recycling programs in Kodiak and Cordova, Haines, Petersburg. So if you fish in Alaska, and there is a recycling program for your gear, we highly encourage you to participate in that. But more importantly, if you fish somewhere where there is not currently a recycling program, please let us know because we would love to start one. It's our goal to have a recycling program in all of the major fishing ports in the US. So Alaska is where we got started, where we have the most, where a huge portion of my heart resides even though I reside in Washington. We're really looking for any interested parties that would like to help us get programs started in new locations.
For more information on Net Your Problem, or if you have fishing gear you want to recycle, contact Nicole Baker at email@example.com or visit https://www.netyourproblem.com/