Challenge meet opportunity: How these entrepreneurs are making treasure from trash

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Bureo recycles almost three square meters of net, shown by co-founders Ben Kneppers (left) and Kevin Ahearn, into each Minnow skateboard. | Photo from Bureo

Dirty, foul-smelling fishing nets clutter beaches, trap sea life and pollute the oceans. They take 600 years to decay and make up 10 percent of ocean debris. But today in dozens of fishing villages in Chile and the Philippines, old nets are becoming part of the solution.

American companies are recycling nylon from tons of nets collected in fishing villages along Chile’s Pacific coast and in the Philippines. Bureo, a California startup, turns them into fish-shaped skateboards, while Interface, the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpets, converts them into yarn for its floor tiles.

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Discarded fishing nets are loaded onto a truck in Cocholgüe, Chile, by a team working with Bureo co-founder Ben Kneppers (right). | Photo from Bureo

Both companies give fishermen a financial incentive to round up old nets while also funding community organizations that provide access to banking and other services. Both companies aim to scale up these enterprises in other parts of the world.

Bureo and Interface each have won the Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE) for sustainable oceans management. They’ll be honored January 5 with four other companies exemplifying the best of American values in the way they operate overseas.

Bureo is the brainchild of three outdoorsy guys who gave up corporate careers. In 2015, it recycled more than 80,000 kilograms of nets. Patagonia, the clothing giant known for its emphasis on sustainability, was an early backer.

Bureo so far has manufactured 12,000 Minnow skateboards in Santiago, Chile, and a new, larger model called the Ahi in California. The recycled nets are also used in fashionable sunglasses, and other eco-friendly products are in the works. “We see ourselves growing from a small skateboard company” into part of a much larger initiative “to recycle mountains of ocean waste every year,” says co-founder David Stover.

It’s collected over 100,000 kilograms of nets so far, working with more than 900 fishing families in 27 villages in the Philippines, and has begun collecting nets in Cameroon.Interface, like Patagonia, already enjoys a reputation as a global leader in the corporate world on sustainability and in finding ways to reduce waste.

“We built the model so it can be replicated,” says Jon Khoo, a London-based innovation projects leader for Interface. “It’s a new way of tackling both an environmental and social problem. And it’s good for business.”

The other 2016 ACE winners are General Electric, for an all-female business center in Saudi Arabia; McDonald’s Germany, for hiring hundreds of refugees; Andela, which trains software developers in Lagos, Nigeria; and copper mining company Sociedad Minera Cerro Verde, majority owned by Freeport-McMoRan, for sharing a new wastewater treatment plant with the city of Arequipa, Peru.

This article was originally published on Share America.