A new era for conservation

by ZSL on

Recycling ambandoned and deadly fishing nets in to carpet tiles is not only brilliant for marine wildlife but also a great step for the local communities behind it.

Disguarded nets are thought to make up a massive 10% of all marine plastic pollution, endangering animals and ending up in our food chain too. Net-Works is tackling the problem, from some of the world's poorest communities, by giving locals the opportunity to sell nets to the leading global carpet manufacturer, Interface.

The project is a joint collaboration between The Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Interface who receives a fully recycled source of nylon for carpet tile production, and the local community who gets an additional source of income and long-term incentives to protect their coasts and waters.

ZSL’s Dr Nick Hill, Co-founder of Net-Works blogs about the innovative approach Net-Works takes to empowering community-led conservation.

Net-Works community-banks in the Phillipines
Net-Works community-bank (CoMSCA) in the Phillipines

Every time I visit a meeting of one of the Net-Works community-banks (known locally as a CoMSCAs), I am both surprised and inspired. 

Run by community members, these banks are the social infrastructure that forms the foundation of Net-Works. 

They provide access to finance in a way that is convenient and local, enabling people to save the money they earn from net collection and take out small loans. 

They also manage the local net supply chain – organising beach clean-ups and facilitating sales transactions.

The first time I took my boss to see Net-Works in action, we sat in on a community bank members’ meeting. 

Once the “business” component of the meeting was over, the members turned their attention to discussions about group t-shirts. That in itself is not a surprise – everyone loves a team t-shirt! 

The question was: how to pay for the t-shirts? The group decided they would use part of their collective income from the sale of nets and top that up with contributions from each individual.

After the meeting my boss came over and asked me whether we should offer to pay for the t-shirts outright. “Definitely not!” I said. 

Whilst I didn’t want to be a miser, this one small step for a Net-Works community represented one giant leap for conservation and development.

Net-works staff wearing self funded tshirts
Net-works staff wearing self funded tshirts

Conservation has a long history of being dependent on financial donations. As a result, and completely understandably, people in developing world communities have come to expect handouts from foreigners and donor-dependent NGOs. This in turn has created a generation of aid-dependency and it has locked communities into a destructive poverty trap. 

With their limited financial resources far exceeded by the global need for support, donors quite rightly are reluctant to continuously fund the same activities in the same places. 

The onus is on us as conservation professionals to break this cycle of dependency and use donor funding wisely to build sustainable solutions that only need external funding once.

To do that we need tools and approaches that empower communities to help themselves. The Net-Works model, based on the infrastructure of local community banks, is the beginning of a tangible, scalable solution. Team t-shirts will not be the thing that enables these communities to protect their marine resources, but what the t-shirt story shows is the sense of empowerment they feel.

I have seen first hand how the confidence of Net-Works community groups grows with every decision they take.

Once the groups get going their decisions get bigger and bolder. For example, some groups have made it a requirement of their members to join a beach clean-up every other week to tackle the problem of waste. And they don’t just pay lip-service – they fine any members who don’t turn up, and have written these fines into their own constitutions!

They have also created benefit-sharing arrangements for distributing the income received from the beach clean up amongst the group. So they have both a carrot and a stick.

Networks team with some of the collected fishing nets for Net-Works before purchasing the t-shirts.
Some of the Net-Works team collecting discarded fishing nets before purchasing the T-shirts.

Most recently I have been inspired to see groups establishing their own Environment Fund. Each member agrees to make a small contribution to this fund each week, to be used to support vital community-managed conservation activities such as restoring and protecting mangrove forests.

Inspired by our partner communities, we at ZSL and Interface have also been encouraged to think bigger and bolder with our ambitions for Net-Works.

Our challenge is that communities need ongoing technical support from trained conservation professionals who understand the science and who can draw on lessons learned from global conservation work.

Communities can’t afford to pay for this expertise and the income from net collection alone won’t fund it. But what if we could expand the Net-Works community-level supply chain to include other products or services? Communities would then have multiple ways to generate supplemental income – not just through net collection.

Perhaps this would generate enough to pay for a small, local, expert team who could provide ongoing support without the need for ongoing donor financing.

With a model like this we would have a truly scalable supply chain – one that benefits all life. And we could empower communities to dramatically change the face of marine conservation, forever.

Now that is truly exciting.

Select a blog

Careers at ZSL

Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.

Nature at the heart of global decision making

At ZSL, a key area of our work is the employment of Nature-based Solutions – an approach which both adapt to and mitigates the impacts of climate change. These Solutions, which include habitat protection and restoration, are low-cost yet high-impact, and provide multiple benefits to people and wildlife. We ensure that biodiversity recovery is at the heart of nature-based solutions. 

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!


We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.


From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.


A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.

Artefact of the month

Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.

Wild About

Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.

Asia Conservation Programme

ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.