The harbour, the inventor, the designer and the surf brand

How a sustainable design project turned waste marine nets into a new type of garment button

Newlyn, near Penzance, dominates the fishing industry in Cornwall – often landing more white fish than any other harbour in England. But a sizeable catch creates a sizeable problem: waste fishing nets.

Around 50 tonnes of nylon nets reach the end of their life in Newlyn each year, presenting a major challenge. Globally, only around 5% of marine nets are recycled, owing to the difficulty of the process. The vast majority end up in landfill or burned in incinerators.

Even those that are salvaged for recycling must be transported to one of Europe’s only two marine net recycling plants, in Slovenia or Denmark. Factor in the carbon emissions from the journey, and even the sustainable option isn’t that sustainable.

From waste nets to 3D printer filament

It’s a problem looking for an innovative solution – and former mining industry researcher Ian Falconer has found one. Drawing on a career background in raw materials research, in 2016 he set out to turn Newlyn’s waste nylon nets into engineering-grade 3D printer filament.

The result is Fishy Filaments, which today has the capacity to produce 400kg of 100% recycled nylon filament each month at its Newlyn plant. It’s attracted 3D print hobbyists and industry buyers from all over the world – as well as some that are much closer to home, like the Cornish surf brand Finisterre.

Fishy Filaments produces engineering-grade 3D printer filament – attracting brands like Finisterre

“Ever since launch we’ve been trying to do something with Finisterre, and they’ve been trying to do something with us,” says Ian. The chance finally came when Niall Jones, an undergraduate on the BA Sustainable Product Design course at Falmouth University, contacted Finisterre to ask for an industry brief for his final-year project.

The brief they came back with was to reinvent Finisterre’s buttons in Fishy Filaments’ Marine Nylon, without compromising its cold-water surf culture brand. Like many clothing brands, Finisterre imports buttons from Europe. Locally-sourced buttons from recycled materials would be much more in tune with its commitment to sustainability.

A new type of button – with a tiny environmental footprint

After trialling 3D printing with nylon filament, then injection moulding with Fishy Filaments’ recycled marine nylon pellets, Niall came up with an innovative, stylish and mass-producible design. Each button has a tab that makes it easy to fasten: a plus for surfers coming out of the sea with cold hands, and a promising innovation for people living with conditions that affect manual dexterity.

Concept designs by Niall Jones for a new, tabbed button for Finisterre, made with 100% recycled fishing net

More promisingly still, the buttons made with 100% locally-recycled materials have a fraction of the environmental impact of their mass-imported counterparts. “For every virgin nylon button that’s made, we could make 46 buttons with Fishy Filaments Marine Nylon,” says Niall. “That’s five whole shirts before we hit the same environmental impact as a single imported button.”

For every nylon button that’s made, we could make 46 buttons with Fishy Filaments Marine Nylon. That’s five whole shirts before we hit the environmental impact of a single imported button.

niall jones, ba sustainable design graduate, falmouth university

Both Ian and Niall have big plans as the world exits coronavirus lockdown. For Niall, it’s about securing orders for his marine-recycled buttons, which now bear his own brand name, Benthos.

The Fishy Filaments prototype plant in Newlyn, Cornwall

For Ian, it’s about bringing the Fishy Filaments model to other fishing ports. “The fifty tonnes a year from Newlyn is a drop in the ocean,” he says. “We want to roll this out around the world so that everywhere that needs local net recycling can have it. That’s the big story for us in the next year.”