An oyster bag, seen here in the water and on a pair of floats, is used by oyster farmers to grow their prized bivalves. Research is being done to learn how to recycle them after they break down. Credit: Courtesy of Dana Morse

Oyster farmers use heavy-duty plastic bags to grow bivalves, but once the material starts to break down it’s tossed in the trash. A pair of Mainers are working to change that by developing a new method of recycling plastics like those found in the bags and other shellfish equipment.

James Rutter, who works as Fab Lab and technology director at Deer Isle’s Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, and Dana Morse, a senior extension program manager at Maine Sea Grant, have set out to build specialized equipment to break the bags down into tiny pellets that can be morphed into a new shapes to give them new purpose.

The aquaculture and fishing industries are heavily dependent on plastics. The goal of the pilot project is to squeeze more life out of the materials that already exist to cut down on waste.

“The best plastic out there is the one we don’t have to produce,” Morse said. “Part of that is getting more useful life out of the plastics we do have.”

Rutter and Morse got funding for the project in the fall of 2021 from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and are currently working on designs for the recycling equipment. The machines they’re devising will shred the oyster bag material.

Coming full circle, the materials generated in that process will then be used to create a device that helps with the oyster shucking process.

A pilot project being done by Maine Sea Grant and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts is aiming to recycle the heavy duty plastic from old oyster bags and turn them into oyster shucking aids. The black materials here are shredded oyster bags from a trial. Credit: Courtesy of Dana Morse

“We’re trying to figure out how to get from ocean waste plastic to the contemporary manufacturing process,” Rutter said. “We’re taking that holistic definition of recycling. Not only are we shredding the material, but we are reusing it.”

Oyster bags were chosen as the test case because they are commonly retired but not recycled. Morse hopes to eventually try recycling other fishing and aquaculture gear if this pilot project goes well.

“There’s a massive opportunity,” he said.

The idea has gained traction locally on Deer Isle, where aquaculture is growing and fishing is one of the main sources of income, because many people want to see better recycling, according to Rutter. He wanted to use the project as an educational tool for students since it intersects with a lot of local interests.

“The thing that excites me is I can see this as an engaging platform for teaching kids,” he said. “This is a great real-world project that lends itself to real-world education.”

The project is being done on a small scale – Morse described it as a “baby step” – but Rutter would be happy to see someone come along and use their idea, once tested, at the commercial level.


“We’re not setting up a commercial recycling operation,” Rutter said. “If somebody wanted to make a business out of this, they definitely could.”