WALDOBORO, Maine — It could have been the opening to an environmental horror movie: Next week, lobstermen will deposit in Rockland 168,000 pounds of plastic rope dragged up from the briny deep.
What will become of the multicolored coils of floating groundline, which no longer can be used to tie lobster traps together because of new federal whale safety regulations?
“Up until recently, all of it got ground up and melted and made into very cheap plastic plant pots and trays,” said Laura Ludwig of the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, the nonprofit group that is running a buyback program to help fishermen adjust to the new regulations.
But no more.
Next week’s batch of reclaimed polypropylene rope will be turned into something else — high-end doormats that come with the best story a doormat ever told.
“It’s a fantastic use for this stuff,” Ludwig said. “The rope is reused and given new life.”
Last summer, a Waldoboro rope maker wondered if the tons of reclaimed groundline might do something more — provide a steady source of employment for some of his workers. So he made mats out of new rope before and hoped that all of the returned rope might provided an opportunity.
“It has done just that,” David Bird, owner of Custom Cordage, said. “It’s provided work for approximately two full-time people through the winter months, where perhaps there might have been layoffs.”
So far, his company has made about 700 mats, and is getting ready for next week’s delivery of 80 more tons of rope.
It might sound overwhelming, but Bird and Penny Johnston, 68, of Waldoboro, see opportunity in all that rope. Johnston is an entrepreneurial sort who has started three different companies since her retirement to Maine five years ago. Her latest endeavor is the Maine Float-Rope Co., and through it she will purchase the mats from Custom Cordage and then sell them to the wider world.
“The colors are warm and welcoming,” Johnston said of the mats. “They’re virtually indestructible, and totally weatherproof.”
She enthusiastically described the different collections she’s planning — including coastal, garden and camp — using different colors and patterns. And that’s not all.
“Boaters take note,” Johnston said, eyes twinkling. “Our mats even float.”
Piles of rope samples take up space on a long wooden table in her converted-barn home. Some are shiny and bright, examples of groundline that wasn’t in the ocean very long if at all. Others are mysteriously muted, with pastel blues, yellows and pinks hinting at long histories under the sea.
“The longer it’s been in the water, you can’t even tell it’s plastic,” said Johnston, a self-professed natural fibers aficionado.
The rope on her table doesn’t have any noticeable smell, and Johnston said the mats don’t, either, despite their origins.
“I would say that nature has done a good job, between salt water and sun, in terms of cleaning it,” she said.
While Mainers have been making doormats from new rope for decade, Johnston’s endeavors mark the first time that mats made from the reclaimed groundline have been sold on a large scale, according to Ludwig.
The doormats likely will retail for $40 and up, and a percentage of the company’s profits will go toward helping lobstermen, Johnston said.
That’s help they can use, said Ludwig. The requirement to turn in floating groundline because of the danger that whales become entangled in it has hurt lobstermen, she said. They now have to purchase pricier sink-rope to tie their traps together.
“It’s been an extreme hardship for the industry,” Ludwig said. “The financial strain will pinch.”
To get the word out about the Maine Float-Rope Co., Johnston is taking some mats to the New England Products trade show in Portland this week. She hopes that they will trigger a wave of interest from potential buyers.
“I really believe in doing anything we can to help the environment using old and recycled materials,” she said. “I’m a green entrepreneur.”
For more information on the Maine Float Rope Co., visit the Web site www.mainefloatrope.com or call 832-9908.
Watch for BDN reporter Bill Trotter’s in-depth look at the effects of the new rope rules on Maine’s lobstermen to appear soon in the Bangor Daily News.