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Patagonia Outlet and Bureo Are Making Jackets Out of Old Fishing Nets

A new fabric is joining the ranks of gear-maker Patagonia's innovative materials. It is called NetPlus, and it's the result of a multi-year collaboration with Bureo, a company that collects and recycles old fishing nets into usable nylon.

These nets come from more than 50 fishing villages along the coasts of Chile, Peru, and Argentina. Bureo's founders have been working in the region for a while, turning nets into small products like skateboards, sunglasses, and Jenga blocks. This partnership with Patagonia is an exciting opportunity to scale up and bring this ocean-helping technology to a broader audience.

NetPlus is already used in the visor brims of Patagonia's hats, but its really big debut will happen in the Fall 2021 collection, where it will comprise the body fabric of ten outerwear pieces, including men's, women's, and kids' Downdrift jackets, and also be added in minor ways to trims, plackets, and pockets for other styles. 

The Process

In order to understand the nets-to-fabric production process, Treehugger chatted with Bureo's co-founder Kevin Ahearn. He is based in Ventura, California, where the company's administrative headquarters is located, as well as Patagonia's. Another co-founder lives full-time in South America, overseeing the team in the region and a 30,000-square-foot warehouse.

Ahearn explains the collection process occurs directly with the fishermen. Since 2013, Bureo has set up programs in Chile, Peru, and, most recently, Argentina to educate and let fishermen know that, when their nets reach end of life – because they do have a finite life – Bureo can take those nets and recycle them in an environmentally-sensitive way. Ahearn likens it to a bottle deposit program, where previously worthless nets now have inherent value and the fishermen know they'll make extra money if they call Bureo.

fishing boats in Chile
Fishing boats off the coast of Chile.

Patagonia x Bureo

The nets come directly from the fishermen — they are not ghost nets, salvaged from the sea. Instead, this program is focused on "preventing that harmful material from ever ending up in the ocean in the first place and capturing it when it's at its most vulnerable state, where it could go either to trash or to recycling."

The nets are brought into the warehouse and cut into more manageable 11-square-foot panels, picked over for debris, and put through an industrial washer that removes all organic matter. The cleaned piece of net is then shredded.

"We deconstruct the nylon fishnet back down to its most basic chemical form and remove any kind of dyes, salt, sand, and impurities that are there," Ahearn explains. "What you end up with is basically a clear liquid version of the liquid building block of nylon, and then you reformulate, depolymerize, and reconstruct the nylon back into a chip."

The chips are like little pellets and Ahearn said it is no different from a new petroleum-sourced chip, despite being 100% recycled. Tests have proven they're nearly indistinguishable from a performance standpoint. 

"Once it's in this chip form, it can be made into all sorts of stuff; but because it's refined and so pure, [Patagonia] is also able to make small filaments and fibers with it," says Ahearn.

What ensues is the exact same process that would go into making a standard nylon jacket. The fiber is spun, made into fabric, the garment is cut and sewn.

"The difference is all on the back end, with the collecting, sourcing, washing, and recycling back to produce this chip," says Ahearn.

Bureo's warehouse in Chile
Bureo's warehouse in Chile.

Patagonia x Bureo

The Partnership

When Bureo first started, it collected between five and 10 tons of fishnet waste per year. "But it got to a point where the magnitude of waste that we were seeing in Chilean communities was more than we could process," Ahearn says. "You can only collect as much material as you're selling."

The company saw a tremendous opportunity to scale up, which the partnership with Patagonia allowed them to do. 

In 2020, Bureo collected more than 650 tons of nets. For perspective, that's around 50 to 60 forty-foot shipping containers' worth of nets. As of the beginning of March, it had collected an impressive 3.2 million pounds of nets in total thus far — a number that's bound to grow drastically as more companies discover NetPlus fabric and want to use it, too.

Right now Net Plus is exclusive to Patagonia, thanks to the assistance it has given Bureo in developing the material, but after several seasons it will be open to other brands. The hat brims followed a similar pattern; only Patagonia used the recycled NetPlus HDPE in its visor brims initially, but it opened up to other brands this spring. 

Ahearn explains that 10 or so brands have picked it up already: "In Patagonia's eyes that's a great example of how technology they helped develop can be more broadly adopted by the industry and the scale of it is able to increase."

Patagonia jacket made with NetPlus fabric
Patagonia jacket made with NetPlus fabric.

Patagonia x Bureo

The Potential

Bureo is proud of its ocean-conserving business model, but Ahearn acknowledges it's only a drop in the proverbial bucket. "We view this program as small, niche material-type recycling," he says. "It's a really good example of how we can create a better solution by turning fishing nets into fabric, but as a community and as a world, we're going to need a lot of these different types of solutions. And we're going to have to decrease our dependence on single-use consumer products."

He's right about needing to change consumer behavior and expand options for reuse, but one should not underestimate the cleverness of this particular solution. There's potential here to revolutionize the fashion industry. If a recycled product has no noticeable difference in performance from a virgin-sourced synthetic and has a smaller carbon footprint and comparable production cost, then why would brands choose anything else? 

Furthermore, with so much of the world subsisting on seafood, there's a steady supply of raw material to transform into recycled nylon chips. Ahearn agrees, saying, "While we don't necessarily agree with the practices of every fishery around the world, we do see that they will be producing this waste regardless. We see this as an opportunity to scale the program and really try to work with every fishery out there."

With the help of a third party, the company is in the process of conducting a Life Cycle Assessment analysis that will analyze its products from conception to end of life and determine its full impact. "We want to be able to measure the actual impact of using a recycled product rather than virgin oil," Ahearn says. "Just like food ingredient labels, it's important for people to know where their clothes and products are coming from." 

Years of persistence are paying off. In the beginning, "we were three guys knocking on doors, asking for nets. I think they thought we were crazy – or our Spanish was so bad something was lost in translation," Ahearn jokes. But now that skepticism is gone. The founders have returned to the villages with samples of products they've made. Ahearn describes this as a lightbulb moment, when the fishermen realized, "Oh, they're actually able to do this!"

With the help of some local non-profits and government groups, many of the fishermen understand the value of what Bureo is doing. "Now the communities are calling us," he says.