Old shore fishing gear gets new life with coastal project

Oyster farmers use heavy-duty plastic bags to grow bivalves, but once the material starts to break down, it gets thrown away. A pair of Mainers are working to change that by developing a new method of recycling plastics like those found in seashell bags and other gear.

James Rutter, who works as a Fab Lab and director of technology at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, and Dana Morse, senior extension program manager at Maine Sea Grant, set out to build specialized equipment to break down bags into tiny pellets that can be shaped into new shapes to give them a new purpose.

The aquaculture and fishing industries rely heavily on plastics. The aim of the pilot project is to give more life to materials that already exist to reduce waste.

“The best plastic there is is the one we don’t have to produce,” Morse said. “Part of that is getting a more useful life out of the plastics we have.”

Rutter and Morse secured funding for the project in fall 2021 from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and are currently working on designing the recycling equipment. The machines they are designing will shred the material from the oyster bags.

Coming full circle, the materials generated during this process will then be used to create a device that aids in the oyster shucking process.

A pilot project led by Maine Sea Grant and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts aims to recycle tough plastic from old oyster bags and turn them into oyster shucking aids. The black materials here are shredded oyster bags from a trial.
Credit: Courtesy of Dana Morse

“We’re trying to figure out how to move from ocean waste plastic to the contemporary manufacturing process,” Rutter said. “We take this holistic definition of recycling. Not only do we shred the material, but we reuse it.

Oyster bags were chosen as a test case because they are usually removed but not recycled. Morse eventually hopes to try recycling other fishing and aquaculture gear if this pilot project goes well.

“There is a huge opportunity,” he said.

The idea caught on locally on Deer Isle, where aquaculture is thriving and fishing is a major source of income, as many people want to see better recycling, according to Rutter. He wanted to use the project as an educational tool for students because it cuts across many local interests.

“What excites me is that I can see this as an engaging platform to teach kids,” he said. “It’s a great real-world project that lends itself to real-world education.”

The project is being done on a small scale – Morse described it as a “small step” – but Rutter would be happy to see someone come along and take his idea, once tested, to a commercial level.

“We’re not setting up a commercial recycling operation,” Rutter said. “If someone wanted to make a business out of it, they sure could.”

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