From Catching Fish to Providing Electricity

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From Catching Fish to Providing Electricity

Under a sunny sky, Irene uses a portable microphone and speaker to be heard over the rumble of diesel engines and the pounding of scrap metal at a recycling facility on Oahu. “Six hundred homes get energy from this program,” she said. “We’re so proud to be a part of this.” Irene is an employee with Schnitzer Steel Hawaii Corporation.

Behind Irene, a crane smashes what appears to have once been a white SUV. It crushes as easily as an aluminum can. The vehicle is, then, dropped onto a conveyor belt and slides its way to a giant container where it is hammered into fist-sized pieces.

The program Irene refers to has nothing to do with steel. Nothing to do with scrap metal. It is called the "Nets to Energy Program."

Many of you have probably heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—or the Pacific Trash Vortex. You may have heard that it’s the size of Texas, and you may have an image of a floating island of marine debris somewhere north of the Hawaiian Islands. You may imagine the “patch” to be so dense, a literal blanket of trash floating on the sea’s surface, that satellite or aerial photographs could easily capture pictures and you could surely see it from a boat. But that’s not quite right.

According to Carey Morishige with the Marine Debris Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), yes, there is marine debris of concern concentrating in the North Pacific Ocean. But much of it is small bits of plastic found throughout all levels of the water column. That is, it’s not just floating on the surface. It’s not even readily visible to the naked eye. And those are two reasons why marine debris is so challenging to remove.

But there is another kind of marine debris, one that hasn’t received quite the attention that plastic has but one that is just as harmful to our oceans, coastal ecosystems and the animals that live in them: Ghost nets. Also called derelict fishing nets. They are like giant balls of spaghetti swirling through out oceans and washing ashore, and endangered Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles and humpback whales, among a variety of other marine animals big and small, can and do get trapped in them and die. Humpback whales have been known to drag miles of line and fishing gear from their summer feeding grounds of Alaska to Hawaii.

In 2002, the Nets to Energy Program & Partnership devised a plan to recycle this marine debris into usable electricity.

Skilled NOAA divers cut nets off reefs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Volunteer groups around Hawaii regularly patrol the coastline of the main Hawaiian Islands and drag nets off the beaches. The nets are shipped by Matson Navigation Company to Honolulu Harbor, where Schnitzer Steel makes bi-monthly pick-ups of the marine debris, averaging nine to 10,000 pounds each pick up.

Schnitzer Steel uses a 4,000 horsepower shredder to cut the netting into small pieces no longer than a yard and, then, trucks the nets to Honolulu’s H-Power waste-to-energy facility.

At the H-Power facility, owned by the city and county of Honolulu but run by Covanta Energy, the nets are burned, producing steam, which drives a turbine that creates usable electricity. 

Since 2002, over 800 metric tons of derelict fishing nets, line and rope have been used to create electricity—enough to power nearly 350 homes on Oahu for a year.

It costs these companies real dollars and hard labor to make this program work, but they do not charge for the service, because as Irene, now speaking over the boom of a crane dropping a soda vending machine, “It’s the right thing to do.”

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