Interface has collected more nets than the weight of a humpback whale. Here’s how it did it.

It’s discarded and it lasts 600 years, not to mention threatening marine wildlife– so what can we do with these “useless masses of polynylon”?

Carpet-tile manufacturer Interface has an answer – though this was not necessarily the first question it was asking. More pertinently, the company was wondering how it could replace its wholly virgin nylon feeder source with a recycled one. And if you go even more rudimentary than that, it was trying to relinquish its reliance on fossil fuels – after all, the carpet manufacturing industry is a dirty one. Much of the nylon is petroleum based, which makes it non-biodegradable, filling US landfills with 4 billion pounds (1.8bn kg) of the stuff every year.

This was something that didn’t fit well with founder Ray Anderson, who coined Mission Zero some 20 years ago - a promise to eliminate any negative impact the company had on the environment by the year 2020 . This was pervading every business choice that it made, so sourcing post-consumer recycled waste to feed in to its current manufacturing models was vital to achieving the goal.

A few years shy of that deadline, the Atlanta-based firm teamed up with its yarn supplier Aquafil and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to create the Net-Works program – sourcing yarn from discarded fishing nets, while also bringing an aditional income to local impoverished fishing communities, Heather Dietz, Interface’s co-innovation communications manager, explains.

“Yarn represents a huge impact in our supply chain

What did they do?

“Yarn represents a huge impact in our supply chain. It became very important for us to find different ways of sourcing that material,” says Dietz. To address this, Interface challenged its yarn suppliers to help find a new solution. Aquafil took up the charge and together created the regeneration system essentially allowing a project that hadn’t been achievable before.

This system enabled the carpet firm to start sourcing recycled material. One of these sources was commercial fishing nets, turning the supposed “useless masse of polynylon” into a really interesting feeder source. “It sparked a lot of interesting ideas in terms of marine conservation, marine plastic and we convened a workshop around it,” Dietz explained. It opened up all sorts of questions that couldn’t be answered before. “Could we create a dolphin friendly carpet?”

One of the attendees for the workshop was the ZSL’s Dr Nick Hill , who was doing a PhD project in the Philippines at the time. He was focusing particularly on fishing nets and community involvement in coastal communities. “Everything he saw led to this inspiration. What if we could create an inclusive business model that helped some of the poorest people in the world, bring them into a global supply chain and in a long term sustainable way get this waste off the island?”

Dietz said that getting this external insight was incredibly valuable. “The collaboration element of this is key. It doesn’t work unless you have a genuine partnership, honest working group who can be in this together.”

In the Philippine coastal villages around Danajon Bank where marine life and reefs are endangered, fishermen gather and bundle discarded nylon nets (which would otherwise last for 600 years) for shipment to Aquafil, which had developed nylon recycling technology. In these villages, almost 900 households have engaged with the program, which has enabled them to: recycle their nets to earn extra income; access financial services self-run community banks, so they can take out micro-loans for education and business ventures and have secure savings; and be empowered to clean beaches of old nets and ensure no more nets are discarded on the beach or in the water.

Challenges to be overcome

With two very different partners working together, the Net-Works project was quite the learning curve for Interface. “There’s so much about this that we didn’t know what we were doing,” Dietz admits. This ranges from determining the community banking model required to provide infrastructure around the net collection to reducing transaction costs.

These were all things the team had to pick up as they went along – take exporting, for example. “My god,” says Dietz, “how do you export these products from remote islands in the Philippines and ship them to Slovenia? That’s not our particular strength.”

Then there’s shipping. In order to maximize cost value, Interface needed to condense those nets as tightly as possible to squeeze as much in a shipping container as possible. This is usually no sweat for a bailer or other machine to tie them up. But in the Philippines, where electricity and water are seriously constrained – “how do you pack and condense as much as you can without modern convenience or technology?”

Thankfully, Dietz’ “operational genius” colleague, Luca Achilli , spent months with the local teams on the ground. “He sketched different ways we can bale, prototyping different methods that could maximize human man-power using mechanical tools and whinges that we could source and find.”

Results

Two central collection hubs encompass 14 smaller collection sites in the Philippines. With these, Interface managed to collect over 41,000kg of nets. The weight of these collected nets is more than the weight of an average humpback whale, Dietz illustrated, and length to length it spans 38,500km - or 96% of the distance around the planet.

We’re not privy to the investment Interface made in the project. Though Dietz can reveal that investing in sustainable enterprise, while looking at a longer payback horizon, has enabled Interface to successfully weather one of the worst recessions in recent history, and remain “an industry leader during a very challenging time.”

Not only that, but Dietz says that supplier Aquafil is reporting that the nets the fishermen are collecting are some of the highest quality nets they’ve seen. “So there is inherent value being pulled,” she comments.

There is also anecdotal evidence that a positive social impact is being created for members of the community. “They’re seeing their environment rejuvenated; seeing clean beaches which they haven’t seen for decades. There’s a different attitude towards nets and waste.” When the company go visit the Philippines, it’s clear that the program belongs to the community themselves, says Dietz. “It’s such a source of village pride.”

In fact, at the beginning of the year the sites had begun to prove that they could financially sustain themselves with no additional investment – in other words, the cost of continuing the program is being covered by the price of the nets. “We try to keep as much of that income in the local communities that the nets are being collected from,” Dietz assures.

Now, the carpet firm are looking to source expansion capital to keep this project growing. “Interface invests in the project team, and that team, in turn, works to establish additional expansion funding in the form of government and private grants to set up new hubs,” she explains. “Most recently, that has come in the form of the Darwin Initiative - which granted over $1 million to support ecological conservation work in the Philippines and in Cameroon - and Net-Works is a large part of that.”

What’s next?

Interface has committed to growing the program with three new collection hubs in three sites in three years. This will be in the Philippines – but the company is also looking to expand into Cameroon in 2015. “That’s very exciting,” says Dietz. “We are currently solidifying the relationships there.”

The firm also has an ambitious goal of positively affecting 10,000 people from this program by 2020 - the progress so far on which is debatable. “We can‘t agree on metrics around this just yet,” Dietz explains. “It ranges from 2,500 to 4,500 people depending on where you put your yardstick on positive impact. We’re just suring up what that means right now – then we’ll have a better idea of how to grow it.”

Nevertheless, what she can tell me is that collection rates have increased 41% since the pilot period. During that time, collection was at about 2,300kg per month, now it’s at 3300. Expanding the sites will only make this number grow - but this is a small part of the overarching story. “In order to realistically achieve our goals we need to bring the industry with us to make recycled content affordable to create channels where it can be valued and re-appropriated.”

“It’s hard doing this – redesigning a supply chain is difficult and you can’t do it alone,” she admits. “It’s so vital to develop strong partnerships and collaboration models outside of your inventory and really find ways to work together.”

So what’s the secret to creating a project like this? “Get as many smart people in a room that aren’t connected to your business as you can,” Dietz asserts. “Structure that collaboration early on, because we really believe that one of us isn’t as smart as all of us.”