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By  Natalie Kikken 25 September 2023 3 min read

Key points

  • Ghost nets are fishing nets that have been abandoned, lost or discarded at sea.
  • Ghost nets can cause significant damage to the marine environment and are a significant issue particularly in Northern Australia.
  • We’ve produced a report with Parks Australia to identify local recycling solutions for ghost nets and other marine debris.

When fishing nets are abandoned, lost or discarded at sea, they become an environmental threat.

These ‘ghost nets’ can entangle wildlife and damage marine and coastal ecosystems. This issue is particularly prevalent in the Gulf of Carpentaria in Northern Australia. Ghost nets accumulate there, many making the journey from overseas.

We're helping address this plastic pollution with Parks Australia. We’ve produced a report on Recycling pathways for ghost nets and other marine debris in Northern AustraliaIt considers the different factors that affect the viability of recycling ghost nets in the region.

Fishing net discarded on a beach.
Our research highlights ways to recycle ghost nets to reduce them ending up in the environment.

Pollution out: recycling in

The Gulf of Carpentaria coastline makes up about 10 per cent of the Australian coastline. It's situated on the borders of Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The Gulf is remote and lacks existing recycling infrastructure. Sending waste to landfill is the most common approach to waste management. Ghost nets are generally removed manually by Indigenous ranger groups and non-government organisations. The nets are then burnt or buried. There is currently no simple solution to collect ghost nets, recycle them and reap the economic benefit. But there are options.

Recycling pathways for ghost nets

As a first step, our report recommends establishing a centralised pre-processing hub. Here, ghost nets and other marine debris could be sorted, cleaned, shredded, and turned into pellets. The pellets could supply existing polymer re-processors to convert the material into new products.

A pre-processing recycling hub would keep costs down and efficiency up. Ghost nets could be consolidated with other waste streams. This means nets could be collected with other waste, transported in the same way, and processed at a central location. The second stage would be establishing a recycling industry in Far Northern Queensland and the Northern Territory.

This approach would build a circular economy and establish a material supply chain. It would also support the development of community infrastructure, education, and training.

Netting our waste solutions

Like all plastic waste materials, recycling ghost nets and marine debris needs available technology and a market for the product. Considerations for a successful recycling approach in the region include:

  • the cost for collecting and processing the ghost nets
  • pre-treatment requirements
  • the volume of material required to run the equipment
  • utilities and infrastructure required (storage, buildings, power, water and/or gas)
  • the complexity of the technology/training requirements
  • repair and maintenance requirements.

Addressing these aspects will help inform planned feasibility studies for a local recycling industry.

Granting recycling viability

A key focus of the report was local consultation. This was to address the viability of recycling ghost nets and how to approach it in a remote area. This included addressing challenges and opportunities for processing the ghost nets in a practical and useful way. Parks Australia is reviewing the report recommendations. 

This research is part of the Parks Australia’s Ghost Nets Initiative, which provides $14.8 million of funding over four years to tackle the problem of ghost nets in northern Australia.

Ghost nets significantly impact wildlife, such as turtles. ©  Jane Dermer / Ghostnets Australia

As part of the recently awarded $3 million Ghost Nets Innovative Solutions Grant Round, Parks Australia is also supporting projects that are trialling various marine debris pre-processing equipment at different locations in the Gulf of Carpentaria. This complementary work will further test the suitability for pre-processing the ghost nets being collected by the Indigenous Ranger groups that are funded through the Ghost Nets Initiative and help raise awareness of the issue within local communities.

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