‘We do very specific work; we are the scrap dealer of the sea,’ sums up Juan Puente when asked what Subsea Environmental Services does, the company he co-founded in 2012.
His work, however, is not collecting polluting packaging materials in the sea, but something almost no one has ever done before: salvaging abandoned submarine cables. In the past decade, the company has managed to salvage 40,000 kilometres of cables. And the demand keeps growing.
This is how it started
‘The idea of recovering cables came about very organically,’ Puente says of the origins of the project. It all started when he was working on the installation of submarine cables the Caribbean, French Guiana and the Amazon. There, there was no low-cost way to access a functioning internet. ‘There was some interest in digitizing that area, which is how we came up with the idea of using cables that were not being used because other, more efficient cables had been laid in parallel.
Thus, was born Subsea Environmental Services, based in New York, where ‘it was easier to find funding’. Moreover, two of the founders are American. ‘The subsea cable industry is growing tremendously as the demand for internet capacity is constantly increasing,’ Puente explains.
Technological development makes it possible to transfer ever larger amounts of data. Cables are ageing rapidly. According to the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC), there are about 3.5 million kilometres of undersea cables, of which about two million are unused. According to their calculations, this amounts to 4.5 tonnes of plastic and 600,000 tonnes of copper.
How to salvage cable from 4,000 metres below sea level
Subsea Environmental Services has already retrieved some 40,000 kilometres of cables. ‘That’s only 2% of the total,’ acknowledges the company’s co-founder, who explains that with the resources they currently have, they already have the capacity to retrieve 10,000 kilometres a year.’ ‘The low-density polyethylene plastic we remove every year is equivalent to the annual consumption of supermarket bags in the Madrid region,’ he explains. The collected plastic is used to make non-food bags and packaging. So far, they are the company with the most capacity to collect the cables, although there are competitors.
To date, the company co-founded by Puente has only one vessel, Rebecca, which has removed cables in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean. In total, the company has 60 employees, 18 of them crew members, working in shifts of six.
How do you remove cables at a depth of 4,000 metres?
After studying the map showing the route of the submarine cable to be removed, we determine where the anchor will be dropped. The first part of the process is carried out by an underwater robot, not Rebecca. ‘We can only use the boat from 11 nautical miles [about 20 kilometres] offshore, partly because it could run aground or affect the marine fauna. Therefore, we have to proceed with caution. Another cable can run through it and sometimes they are buried in these areas to avoid being cut by the anchor of a fishing boat or a yacht,’ Puente explains.
The cable is then hooked to a winch – a cylindrical device on which the cable is wound – as the boat moves forward at a speed of 2 to 3 knots, equivalent to 3.7 to 5.5 kilometres per hour.
During the journey, it is not unusual for another submarine cable to be crossed. ‘Then you have to cut it, reconnect it a few kilometres away,’ he explains. Then, once on the mainland, it is time to cut the cables into 20-metre pieces that accumulate in containers that end up in the associated recycling plant.
Environment and logistics
Of course, awareness of climate change and concern for the environment has not hurt.’ Companies are aware of what they are leaving behind,’ says Puente, who stresses that it is not just about environmental impact, but also logistics. ‘Between Cadiz and the Canary Islands, there is only one route and it is a straight line, so everyone tends to be there, so it makes operations much easier if someone picks up the cable that is no longer in use,’ he explains.
Fleet expansion and number of employees
After the company raised 31 million in November, Subsea Environmental Services plans to expand its fleet to four vessels. One of them, with a length of 150 metres, is designed for operations in the Pacific. The aim is to have 200 employees in a few years’ time. ‘We are a profitable company, and our activity makes economic sense, we don’t need subsidies,’ it said. For the recycling arm, the company is looking for partners around the world. ‘Spain is geographically convenient and the Canary Islands are a good place for a recycling company. The aim is to recycle the plastic (low- and high-intensity polyethylene) they salvage from the seabed differently and use it for textile production.’ ‘There is increasing demand for this kind of product and people are willing to pay a little more if the used plastic comes from the seabed,’ said Subsea Environmental.