Bureo Makes Skateboards from Recycled Fishing Nets to Prevent Ocean Pollution
During peak season, tens of thousands of independent fishermen in Chile replace their plastic nets every week. Lacking the infrastructure to manage the waste, they end up leaving them on the harbor or throwing them overboard while out at sea. If too many wash up, they light them on fire on the beach.
Environmentalists might cringe at the thought—as they constantly accumulate, the discarded fishing nets make up ten percent of the ocean’s plastic pollution. But the fishermen, striving to make a living and faced with a completely privatized waste management system, seem to have no other options.
That’s where Bureo comes in.
Founded by Ben Kneppers—a Massachusetts native and Northeastern University graduate—and his friends David Stover and Kevin Ahearn, the company launched Net Positiva, a program that collects and recycles discarded nets from artisanal fishing communities, in 2013.
“We know it’s a burden, and we take it off their shoulders,” says Kneppers.
After being gathered by local workers, the fishing nets are taken to a partnering recycling facility in Santiago, where they’re shredded and re-pelletized. Then, the pellets are melted and molded into Bureo’s custom-designed “Minnow” skateboards.
“The most effective method for dealing with ocean plastic pollution is preventing it at the source,” says Kneppers. “For every skateboard, we’re able to prevent more than 30 square feet of fishing nets from entering the ocean.”
Plus, for every kilogram of fishing nets that each community donates, Bureo commits funding to a local nonprofit that then holds workshops to figure out how to use the money most effectively.
“[The fishermen] have really gotten behind that,” says Kneppers, who himself lives in Chile, near one of the first fishing communities that Bureo partnered with.
Now, the company is testing out a pilot collection program in California, where Stover and Ahearn, who first met Kneppers while all three were traveling in Australia, are based.
“It’s a natural next step because we operate out of California,” says Kneppers. “That’s the heart of the skateboard industry, and that certainly helps as well.”
Like with the fishermen, Bureo has received positive feedback from the skateboarding community.
“I grew up skateboarding on a classic wood deck, which is the traditional skateboard. We didn’t want to go into that territory,” says Kneppers. “Instead what we did enter is a really fun space where it’s really a board for just cruising down the street. They’re not going to be dropping in on a halfpipe with [the “Minnow”], and we never wanted them to, but anybody that rides a skateboard is certainly going to appreciate that it can offer a really fun, smooth ride.”
The “Minnow” skateboards are available in more than 90 stores in eight countries, including worldwide Patagonia outposts. While Bureo works on a second skateboard model, recycled from fishing nets gathered in California, it’s also launching a collection of sunglasses—with three frame designs—made from the same product, created in partnership with Chilean company Karün.
The first production run of the sunglasses was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, which closed last week and raised more than $180,000. The first production run of the “Minnow” skateboards was funded the same way, with about 500 backers pledging nearly $65,000.
Initially, Bureo also received grants from government-sponsored program Startup Chile, Northeastern’s student-run venture accelerator IDEA, and the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund.
On Thursday, September 17, Kneppers, Stover, and Ahearn will give a free lecture at the New England Aquarium, presenting the successes and challenges of their venture.
“Our model has always been ‘poco a poco,’ which is Spanish for ‘little by little,'” says Kneppers. “We prove one step and then we build on it and we learn from it to see how we can do better.”
Bureo’s free lecture at the New England Aquarium will take place on Thursday, September 17, at 7 p.m. inside the Simons IMAX Theatre. Pre-registration is encouraged at neaq.org.