Circular Surfing : Polluting Plastic to New Boards

A US-based plastics company has teamed up with a Bangkok surfing outfit to produce surf and paddle boards made from discarded fishing nets – and are giving small oceanfront villagers a new source of income along the way. By James Teo.

 Surfboards built partly from old, polluting fishing nets - a win-win for the sea. Courtesy Starboard Company.

Surfboards built partly from old, polluting fishing nets - a win-win for the sea. Courtesy Starboard Company.

Bangkok, November 2, 2018. According to the United Nations, more than 8million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans every year, wreaking havoc on marine wildlife and fisheries. That’s equal to one garbage truck of plastic dumped at sea every minute. Not only that, the plastic ocean pollution is estimated to cause some US$8 billion in damage to marine ecosystems.

"It is past time that we tackle the plastic problem that blights our oceans,” says UN Head of UN Environment, Erik Solheim. “We’ve stood by too long as the problem has got worse. It must stop." Although nets are not as big a hot button as plastic straws and polystyrene cups, abandoned nylon fishing equipment is a big part of the ocean plastic problem.

According to a report jointly produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Environment Program (UNEP) in 2009, there were roughly 640,000 tonnes of these nets in the ocean, accounting for a staggering near-10% of all plastic ocean waste. Worse, fishing nets abandoned at sea remain in the marine ecosystem for hundreds of years. And in the last nine years the volume of these discarded nets has only increased.

 Old fishing nets are collected and sorted by women in small coastal communities. Courtesy DSM.

Old fishing nets are collected and sorted by women in small coastal communities. Courtesy DSM.

The two firms, DSM Engineering Plastics and board makers Starboard Company, have teamed up to try to reduce the problem by using recycled plastic fishing netting washed up or dumped on Indian beaches bordering the Arabian Sea.

“At DSM, our strategy includes developing innovative solutions … that contribute to a circular economy,” explains Matt Gray, APAC Commercial Director for DSM Engineering Plastics. “We look beyond (the) current model of take-make-dispose and instead try to mimic nature and the circle of life, and to align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals addressing climate change, resource scarcity, waste and pollution.”

As part of this drive, DSM has developed a process that recycles polyamide based waste plastics – such as fishing nets – and upcycles the resulting materials into its Akulon Repurposed compound. This is being used by a range of manufacturers for a wide variety of applications including moulded furniture, vehicle parts and other industrial products.

The other aspect to collecting and using discarded fishing nets is that because DSM sources material from along the Indian coastline, this gives the opportunity to introduce a new income stream for otherwise marginal villages. The old, discarded and washed up nets are collected, treated and upcycled using local labour; this gives many local women the opportunity for paid work. So in addition to addressing environmental concerns, the collection, sorting, cleaning and processing of discarded fishing nets creates sustainable livelihoods for local communities too.

 Once collectd, sorted and bagged, the waste nets are reprocessed, ready for remoulding. Courtesy DSM.

Once collectd, sorted and bagged, the waste nets are reprocessed, ready for remoulding. Courtesy DSM.

The collected material is processed into Akulon RePurposed compound ready for use as a high-performance, fully sustainable resin. This is then moulded by the Starboard workforce in Bangkok into components like fins, fin boxes, SUP pumps, and other structural parts of surfboards.


“One of the most satisfying parts of our work is the challenge of redesigning our products to lower their environmental impact and achieve higher performance,” says Svein Rasmussen, Founder and CEO, Starboard. The company now uses the recycled materials across its range of paddle, surf, windsurf and kiteboards.

“Through this collaboration with DSM, we showcase how quick and easy it can be to change the way we build better boards for the planet. We want to continuously push boundaries for more eco-innovations.”

The company says it is committed to changing the plastic economy into a safer and greener system, so watersport enthusiasts can paddle clean waters and sail plastic-free seas.

And as DSM’s Gray notes, it gives both companies – and the village collectors – a buzz to be able to demonstrate that it’s possible to use polluting waste to make a long-lasting, high-value material that can be recovered at the end of its life cycle to become something new.

“We hope the success we have been able to achieve with Starboard encourages other companies to step forward with new projects (that) promote a more circular economy,” says Gray.