From Nets to Kilowatts

By Farnsworth, Amy | The Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 2009 | Go to article overview
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From Nets to Kilowatts

Farnsworth, Amy, The Christian Science Monitor

At the Covanta Energy-from-Waste facility in Preston, Conn., a 30- foot wall of garbage towers above 10 tons of tangled fishing gear. Fishing nets, ropes, lobster traps, and buoys from the fishing port of Provincetown, Mass., lie on the floor where trash is dumped for disposal. These massive nets and other gear - some pulled from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean - may look like trash, but they're about to become something more useful: electricity.

A giant mechanical crane pulls apart clumps of the fishing gear along with plastic bags filled with municipal solid waste. Then it tosses them into one of two continuously burning incinerators to generate energy that powers an estimated 12,000 Connecticut homes around the clock.

Turning old fishing gear into an energy resource is part of a program that was launched in 2008 as a means to help reduce marine debris in oceans.

Along the Northeast coast, seven ports in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have been outfitted with 40-cubic-yard dumpsters where fishermen can dispose of their used gear free of charge.

Once the dumpsters are full, the gear is transported to a nearby recycling facility where metals are removed from crab pots and lobster traps, and nets and ropes are sheared for easier disposal.The gear is then burned in incinerators that generate steam, turning turbines that produce electricity. Each ton of fishing gear is able to generate enough electricity to power one home for 25 days, estimates Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer for Covanta Energy Corp. based in Fairfield, N.J. The company has 38 facilities worldwide that annually convert 16 million tons of trash into 8 million megawatt hours of energy and produce 10 billion pounds of steam to sell to industries for use in heating and air conditioning.

The fishing gear project, known as the Fishing for Energy program, is a partnership among Covanta, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Schnitzer Steel, which chops up the nets to make them more manageable and removes metals from the discarded fishing equipment and recycles them.

It's an expansion of a similar program, Nets to Energy, which was launched on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, in 2006 after a series of NOAA marine debris cleanups revealed large volumes of derelict or discarded fishing gear at sea. The gear posed a threat to coral reefs and put endangered monk seals at risk.

Because of the limited landfill space in Hawaii and the magnitude of gear found, NOAA decided to try to circumvent fishermen's disposing of old gear at sea by buying a dumpster where they could dispose of it at no cost. NOAA reached out to Covanta and to Schnitzer Steel, which agreed to turn the gear into energy at no cost.

It costs Covanta about $300 a ton to transport the fishing gear to its incinerators, where it is mixed with municipal waste and burned to generate electricity. A Covanta spokeswoman says the company probably recoups that expense from selling the electricity generated.

And so an economic burden to fishermen and a threat to the marine ecosystem has become a low-cost source of energy.

The program is the first of its kind, says Megan Forbes, national communications coordinator for the marine debris program at NOAA.

Although there is no quantitative data on the total volume of marine debris dumped into the ocean each year, approximately 52 metric tons of foreign and domestic marine debris washes up along the shores of the Hawaiian archipelago annually, according to NOAA.

The debris found along the shores of Hawaii are the result of currents in the north Pacific Ocean, says Ms. Forbes.

Although disposing of fishing equipment at sea is illegal, there are several reasons why it can end up in the ocean:

* Fishing crews may lose nets or rope because of storms or have nets washed off boat decks while nets are being repaired at sea.

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