Beaches full of old and broken fishing nets. Garbage floating in harbors and bodies of water. Animals like turtles, crabs and dolphins getting suck and perishing in fishing nets. We’ve all seen these horrifying images.
Alongside oil and plastic, ghost nets are a significant factor in the pollution of oceans, lakes and rivers. These ghost nets are abandoned fishing nets, predominantly made from long-lasting plastic fibers, that haunt water for decades while endangering ecosystems and all life within them. An unfathomable 640,000 tons of fishing nets are either lost or illegally dumped in the water each year (source: fao.org). These nets pose a significant medium-term and long-term threat to maritime ecosystems, and therefore humans too.
This article not only covers the global issue of ghost nets but also a solution approach that we at Ergosign would like to support: we are using speculative design methods and prototyping to design a realistic deposit system for fishing nets.
A study on behalf of the European Commission identified the following causes that are responsible for fishing nets being left in the ocean:
What do ghost nets and water pollution have to do with Ergosign? Why are we spending time thinking about things that don’t have anything to do with digital products and our services at first glance? It’s simple:
“We are more than ‘just’ a digital UX design agency. In our projects, we find solutions for problems and challenges that vary immensely. We are, like in this case, experts in comprehending the circumstances of various different industries and sectors.”
As the impacts of ghost nets affect us all, our goal is to show how technology and design can be used to come up with meaningful solution approaches.
As well as the cause of the problem, the European Commission has also had solutions investigated. A deposit system has been identified as a favorite option, similar to the bottle deposit system in place in many European countries. The aims are as follows:
“Speculative design methods are generally used as inspiration and in discussions regarding solution approaches to wider societal problems. Speculative design intends to elicit actions to impact existing products and services as well as our culture and ecosystems in a solution-oriented way.”
We begin with an analysis of the current product life cycle. Where do these nets come from, what do they look like, what conditions are they subjected to, how are they used, where and how do they leave the cycle?
We are basing our fundamental concept on the promising option of a deposit model for fishing equipment that the European Commission has selected as preferred.
First, we visualized the nets’ current cycle and infrastructure. Then we looked for suitable technology to act as a driver in this challenging case. Based on this, we created a product journey map to visualize implementation and outline the infrastructure changes required by the deposit model.
To create the necessary incentives and reduce the strain on the environment in the long run, our implementation goal is as follows:
We outline technical feasibility in a proof of concept regarding the product - in this case, fishing nets - as well as the development of a digital service touch point.
A significant part of our solution is making fishing nets “smart”. As our technological basis, we have decided to use NFC - near field communication - tags. These facilitate documentation throughout the net’s life cycle as well as the development of a product deposit system.
A fishing net offers few options to integrate technology. At the same time, water is also a challenging implementation site. NFC tags, which can consist of no more than a small wire, are an optimal solution thanks to their small size and exceptional resilience.
NFC tags work via induction, so no need for regular charging or communication frequencies that can be impacted by the environment. They also offer the opportunity to read and write small quantities of data. The costs of producing NFC tags, as well as the writing and reading devices required throughout the supply chain, are low and economically feasible.
We integrated these NFC tags into the weights on the fishing nets. So they do not impact the product nor its function.
The NFC tags contain a reference to a database. This means data about the net, the deposit paid and the net’s life cycle can be documented.
In our concept, a monetary deposit is paid each time a net is purchased. The net deposit can be charged upon purchase and refunded upon return. During predefined phases of the fishing net’s supply chain, the status of this net and the relevant phase can be documented using the writing tools positioned within the process (e.g. upon purchase and on the boat). This means it is always possible to see when the net was sold or cast out.
The deposit system allows incentives to be integrated into the process. Paying the deposit creates motivation for fishing businesses to return the net. To create additional incentive, the deposit has been calculated to exceed the costs of returning the net. The costs are fairly distributed, however, as the deposit is refunded. The deposit system enables returns, facilitating a closed life cycle.
This closed life cycle is supplemented by corresponding return points in infrastructure, e.g. near harbors. Accompanying upcycling and recycling processes can be coordinated and measurably established through the closed system.
If the net is lost, two possible effects are created. As the net’s last location of use was documented, its position can be tracked, facilitating targeted recovery. The deposit can also be motivation for other parties: this could encourage the removal of large numbers of nets from the water - with a profitable reward.
In future, documentation could also log who lost a net and which fisheries are looking for the net.
These technologies make “old” products smart, creating sustainable solutions for our environment. Our solution draft shows the use of NFC tags in fishing nets as the basis for a complete recycling system.
The integration of a cheap technology facilitates the economically feasible implementation of these processes as well as fair cost distribution. The result is the formation of sustainable motivators through the removal of essential hurdles, reducing strain on the environment through creating a circular economy. We also used the scenario to further develop our own understanding of a new design method by taking a comprehensive approach to a global problem.
For clean oceans with fewer ghost nets and a sustainable contribution for our planet!
Headers image source: Unsplash