Thursday, February 2, 2023

The great defender of plastics who wins with recycling in Chile

120 kilometers off the coast of Chile on industrial land south of Santiago smells of the sea. In winter, you can even see mussels among the hills of forklifts and fishing nets. Inside the factory, yes, you can breathe hot plastic. Michel Compagnon, 47, grew up smelling it at Cumberplast plants, which he tours today as the company’s business engineer. The difference with the products manufactured by the brand is that the fragrance is now recycled plastic. Every year they sort about 5,500 tons of trash out of nylon nets, polyester rope or plastic pallets, and every 50 seconds a machine spits out a new product: from boxes to skateboards or sunglasses. “Plastic is the best material in the world, but we use it badly. It’s not rubbish, it’s raw material,” says Compagnon, a rare kind of environmentalist.

When society realized that plastic is one of the most polluting materials on the planet, around 2000, Compagnons decided to set up a recycling plant. They also chose not to manufacture any single-use products, only those with a long useful life and that could be reused. “We walked in the desert for a long time. At least our customers told us we were crazy, but when circular economy became fashionable, we had been doing it for 15 years. Now we didn’t have to knock on the door. They were the ones who came here”, says the engineer. Five years ago, Cumberplast manufactured less than a thousand tonnes of recycled plastic per year, a figure that is growing rapidly and is expected to reach 10,000 by 2023.

Michel Compagnon, Commercial Engineer at Comberplast.photo: Christian Soto Queiroz , video: EPV

Two million tons of plastic were manufactured in the world in the middle of the last century. According to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), production is set to reach 461 million tonnes in 2021, following accelerated growth over the past two decades. Of everything that is put on the market annually, barely 6% comes from recycling.

On his 2016 vacation, Compagnon visited Patagonia with his family. In addition to the natural landscape of the southern region, they found many ropes—resistant ropes tied together to form nets—polluted the fjords. According to the OECD, more than 140 million tons of plastic pollutes aquatic ecosystems. With the mindset that plastic has a second life, the engineer carried a couple in his suitcase: “For me they were throwing away raw materials. All that had to be done was to remove it from the environment and return it for human use. ,

After technical work, his team managed to break the ropes and give them a new use. He then approached fishermen associations who were knowledgeable about the area, and offered to pay them per kilo of rope waste. They would collect them in their boats and take them to the collection centers. With the potential to break them down and turn them into pieces for construction, agriculture or mining, the “Tando Cabos” program, winner of the Latin America Green Award 2019, was born. “When we managed to win the whole series, it turned into a snowball,” he says. Ropes represent approximately 50% of recycled content at Comberplast, followed by fishing nets (20%) and plastic pallets (20%). In 2022, he sent a bill for $15 million.

A Worker With Shredded Ropes, Before They Are Turned Into Plastic Pellets That Can Be Used For Other Products.
A worker with shredded ropes, before they are turned into plastic pellets that can be used for other products.Christian Soto Queiroz

In Coquimbo, about 2,000 kilometers north of Patagonia, Oscil Velasquez, a former artisanal crustacean fisherman and president of the National Fisheries Society (Sonapesca), found what he was doing in Comberplast. In 2016, he loaded his truck with 600 kilos of unusable fishing nets and drove to a recycling plant thanks to the Bureau’s advice to another company doing the same. “The networks that were no longer serving were one cluster (issue). The landfill claimed they took 500 years to decompose and many crew members dumped them straight into the ocean,” says Velasquez: “When a fishing company takes possession of their nets, they dump them in the landfill. Have to pay for shipping. Now they have been sent to a waste handler.”

The recycling machine took off and turned the nets into items ranging from ergonomic chairs to sportswear. “Now we have an entire industry engaged in bringing networks together,” he says. They have already distributed over 6,000 tonnes of material and the alliance with Cumberplast wants to recycle up to 50% from fishing nets representing 20% ​​of the material.

Sonpesca joined the Latin American Alliance for Food Security through Sustainable Fishing (ALPESCAS) made up of 12 countries in the region, an organization that Velasquez also chairs today. From there, in 2021 he created the “Network of the Americas” program, which is currently made up of six countries including Argentina, Mexico and Peru. Redes Para America’s three-year goal is to collect 4,500 tons of unusable fishing nets by 2024, of which 55% have already been collected. Velasquez says the next step is to drop 15 cents per kilo of material in the communities that distribute it, to promote a circular economy.

Nation World News Desk
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