Plastic rope washes ashore in southwest Washington. In Whatcom, it finds new life

·5 min read

Ocean plastics littering Washington’s coast are finding new life in Bellingham, with the help of a team of professors and students at Western Washington University’s College of Science and Engineering.

Since December, the group has used its expertise and machinery to turn the plastic yellow rope used in oyster farming into crab gauges, which people use to measure their catches and determine if they are large enough to legally keep.

“It’s a nice circular design where you’ve collected debris from a fishing industry and are putting it back into the same industry,” said Nicole Hoekstra, a professor of plastics and composite engineering who is helping lead the project.

It’s the type of work that is increasingly garnering the interest of industrial and commercial leaders, as the world grapples with the consequences of its obsession with plastic.

Almost all plastic is made from fossil fuels, the primary culprit of global climate change. At least 14 million tons of plastic finds its way into the world’s oceans annually, breaking down into tiny particles and harming marine life.

“It is very clear that large companies all along the West Coast are thinking a lot about how we can reuse materials and reduce materials at the source,” said John Misasi, an associate professor at Western Washington University who is also helping lead the project. “More and more money is going into this, and more and more people are going into this.”

The WWU team’s current work is in collaboration with Lee First, the Twin Harbors Waterkeeper, who devised the Yellow Rope Project after noticing the huge amount of rope littering beaches on her walks between Westport and Tokeland in southwest Washington. The project was launched with funds from the state Department of Ecology’s Public Participation Grant and is supported with funding from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

Yellow plastic rope discarded from oyster farming is recycled at Western Washington University in Bellingham into gauges used to measure crabs.
Yellow plastic rope discarded from oyster farming is recycled at Western Washington University in Bellingham into gauges used to measure crabs.

How rope becomes a new product

Here’s how it works: Volunteers in southwest Washington scour the coastline for discarded yellow rope from longline oyster farming. Using this common method, oyster shells are woven into ropes and set out in the tide flats for years, until oyster larvae has settled onto the shell and grown enough to harvest for meat.

After the meat is harvested, the empty shells — still intertwined with the rope — are sometimes placed back into the water to host more oyster larvae. The rope is a forgotten casualty, however, as it breaks free and washes onto the shore.

Once the volunteers collect this rope, it is sent hours north by vehicle to Ocean Legacy, a recycling facility in British Columbia, to be formed into small pellets. Finally, these pellets are transported to Bellingham, where the WWU team heats and molds them into crab gauges.

A portion of the crab gauges was purchased by Washington Sea Grant, which is run by the University of Washington. The organization plans on handing out the tools at education and outreach events.

But crab gauges are only a jumping-off point — the pellets have the potential to be molded into many products. The WWU team has been in touch with a Seattle-based start-up company that is creating an ecosystem-themed game and wants the tokens to be made out of recycled materials, Hoekstra said.

Any product created from the yellow rope could again be recycled and remolded into other products once it is discarded, Hoekstra said. The yellow rope is made of polypropylene, a type of plastic that can be reused many times.

“Most plastics do have a lifetime,” she said. “It is hard to recycle them forever.”

Despite polypropylene’s high potential for reuse, there is a limit to its capabilities as a material. The ropes are contaminated from their time in the ocean, so the plastic can’t be recycled into food packaging or products that would be dangerous if they weren’t completely structurally sound.

“I wouldn’t build skateboards out of them, for example,” Hoekstra said.

Volunteers collected almost 17,000 yellow ropes on Jan. 16, 2021, on beaches between Westport and Tokeland, Wash.
Volunteers collected almost 17,000 yellow ropes on Jan. 16, 2021, on beaches between Westport and Tokeland, Wash.

Challenges still remain

Although the technology exists, there’s still a long road ahead before it becomes mainstream to recycle ocean plastics into everyday products, Hoekstra said. Many companies still balk at the price difference between recycled products and those created using “virgin material,” which has never been used before.

“All these steps are more expensive than refining crude oil,” she said.

The Yellow Rope Project is a financially and environmentally efficient process because each step happens within a relatively tight geographic area, she explained. The plastic collection, cleaning, processing, molding and product use all happen in Washington and British Columbia.

But most of the world’s products would need to be transported much further to go through similar steps, potentially doubling, tripling or even quadrupling the price of production, Hoekstra said.

“Companies say ‘I can’t do that,’” she said.

WWU’s engineering department is conducting research in partnership with the company HP to help the technology giant figure out how to get more recycled content into its products, Misasi said.

“You need a company like HP that makes a commitment,” Hoekstra said. “Even if it means spending twice as much money.”

The closest facility to Bellingham that separates and prepares recycling for buyers is in Portland, Oregon, Hoekstra said. For the economics of recycling to pencil out better, communities need more facilities closer to home, she said.

“Normally, when people think of scaling, they think of going bigger,” Hoekstra said. “When we think of scaling up recycling, a big component of that is to think smaller because it reduces the transportation component.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting