Los Angeles-based Bureo is known for turning ocean waste, specifically nylon fishing nets, into recycled skateboards. Now the company is putting its recycled plastic to the test.
Working with the International Living Future Institute, Bureo is participating in the Living Product Challenge. The program certifies companies that meet a set of performance categories that include responsible water and energy use; use of materials that are safe to both human beings and the environment; the product’s positive contribution to the health and well-being of consumers; responsible labor practices; climate impact; durability; and responsible disposal of the product.
“If (the certification is) achieved, our material will likely become the first plastic to generate a certified net-positive impact on the environment and people,” says Ben Kneppers, co-founder of Bureo. “It challenges us to think: What if every single act of design and manufacturing made the world a better place?”
Bureo was founded with that intent. Three years ago, Kneppers and his friend David Stover were working in Australia, Kneppers as a sustainability consultant and Stover as a financial consultant. A friend of Stover’s, Kevin Ahearn, was a taking a break from his career as a design engineer to surf in Australia. All three men sought refuge and relaxation in surfing. But as they ventured out onto the beaches, they saw waste piling up everywhere and polluting the water. Compelled to live more fulfilling lives and create a positive impact on their beloved oceans, the trio researched the sources of ocean waste.
Fishing nets, they learned, make up a staggering portion of ocean debris. Approximately 700,000 U.S. tons of fishing gear is dumped into the ocean each year. The nylon used to make the nets, though, is durable and can be repurposed into usable plastic.
So in 2013, the trio wrote up a business proposal on how to turn discarded nets into recycled skateboards. They received two rounds of seed funding totaling about $124,000 from Start-Up Chile, a funding program for social ventures in that country, to establish and expand Bureo’s net collection and recycling program and develop the first skateboard.
From Decreasing Negative Impact to Creating Positive Impact
Bureo’s founders aimed to do more than just find a use for discarded fishing nets — they were determined to treat the root of the waste problem, too. Fishermen were dumping nets into the ocean because very few disposal programs were available.
“We strongly believe that every fisherman and every fishing port in the world needs access to a coordinated waste-management system for their fishing gear,” Stover says.
Bureo works with fishermen in Chile to promote net collection. The company’s program, Net Positiva, rewards fishermen for procuring unwanted nets from their fellow fishermen.
“Chile has a vast coastline and a thriving fishing community,” Stover says. “It was a great place for us to tackle this massive issue in a very local manner.”
While community managers who oversee the collection process get paid for their efforts, Bureo also allocates money for every kilogram of net that is collected. That money is put toward a local nonprofit, Fundacion El Arbol, which works on environmental projects in local communities.
Once the nets are collected, they’re taken to a recycling unit where they are shredded and turned into pellets. The pellets are melted and molded into skateboards. “You can make anything out of it then through an injection-mold process,” explains Stover. “It’s like new.”
Each Bureo skateboard is made from approximately 30 square feet of harvested fishing nets. The wheels are made from 30 percent vegetable oil with 100 percent recycled cores.
While the founders started with skateboards, they’ve recently expanded into sunglasses. The plastic frames are made from the same material found in Bureo’s recycled skateboards, and the glasses feature Carl Zeiss lenses. Packaging for all Bureo’s sunglasses and skateboards is made from 100 percent recycled paper.
In 2014, outdoor clothing and gear maker Patagonia saw Bureo’s story on a CBS news segment and made a call. “We were pretty surprised, but elated,” Stover says. “Patagonia is an ideal partner because they understand what we’re trying to do beyond the bottom line.” Patagonia invested in Bureo through Patagonia’s $20 Million & Change Fund, which focuses on environmentally conscientious brands.
“Bureo is not your typical startup — they’ve invented an incredible recycling program by rallying the fishing industry in Chile to turn plastic ocean waste into a great product,” Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario said in a press release. “We’re investing in Bureo’s vision to scale their business to a global level and make a serious dent in the amount of plastic that gets thrown away in our oceans.”
The association with Patagonia has made a difference, Stover says. Annual revenue has risen from $150,000 in 2014 to $400,000 in 2015. Bureo products are now sold in 105 stores (up from two stores in 2014), many of them Patagonia retail outlets, around the world. And the company has hired one more full-time employee, making Bureo a team of four.
In Chile, where the company collects all its nets and manufactures its products, the growth is evident, Stover notes: The company has expanded its collection program from one community to 15 and has collected over 100,000 kilograms (about 220,000 pounds) of fishing nets.
Bureo means “the waves” in Mapuche, a Chilean dialect — an apt name for a company looking to start a wave of change.