Recovering And Recycling Redundant Submarine Telecommunication Cables

A circular economy solution

As mankind ventures further into the technologies of artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, social media, and a vast array of other applications, the global demand for capacity continues to increase at an unprecedented rate. While advances in satellite and mobile networks are driving future connectivity innovation, currently the most viable existing option for meeting these capacity demands is through the network of undersea telecommunication cables also known as “The Cloud Under the Sea.”

Across our oceans’ seabeds lies a planetary system of undersea cables—an interconnected web of over one million kilometers worth of fiber optic pipelines that facilitate our global connectivity. Each cable, as thick as a garden hose, carries hundreds of terabits of information per second and connects our continents at the speed of light. These cables comprise a state-of-the-art technological design that sits several kilometers deep and remains relatively undeterred by weather.

But the system still has its disruption vulnerabilities. Cables break, whether it be from general abrasion over time or external aggression caused by human activity (such as fishing). Not only do cables suffer wear and tear—they need to be laid at a breakneck pace to meet the global appetite of our digital world. To meet the demand for high-speed connectivity, every year thousands of kilometers of brand-new cables are being laid, and they often cross existing cables and cable routes. This congestion of cables in some areas increases the risk of a break due to abrasion of one cable on top of another.

Although these cables occupy a minute amount of space on the vast ocean floor and have been shown to be benign in terms of environmental impact, you can imagine that if you extrapolate that over the next 50-100 years, there will be a lot of cable down there. Taking a holistic view and considering a wide range of factors in each instance—such as sustainability and environmental impact as well as economic value and cable security—clearing up as much of  any excess cables as possible makes a lot of sense in terms of minimizing risks.

Putting an accurate number on how much out-of-service cable is still available for recovery and recycling is a challenge, as it is an extremely dynamic environment. Factors like the proclamation of new marine protected areas, new cables being laid, limited, shifting timelines for cable recovery from a weather window perspective, and a general increase in regulatory requirements (such as permitting and environmental considerations) impacts the recoverability of cable systems.

Eckhard Bruckschen and Alwyn du Plessis

Only a handful of companies worldwide are involved in these recovery operations of submarine cable systems. One of these companies is Mertech Marine.

Leading the way in recovery and recycling

Since 2004 Mertech Marine has been at the forefront of innovating the recovery and recycling of out-of-service cables. Using their own marine fleet, the company has recovered almost 100,000km of out-of-service cable at their land-based processing facility in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, which covers 30,000sqm and is the only one of its kind in the world. Even more astoundingly, 99 percent of the cable recovered is clean as a whistle and ready to be recycled.

Some of the cables that have been recovered by Mertech Marine, either partially or in full, are:

  • SAT-1
  • SAT-2
  • CANTAT-3
  • TAT-1, 3, 7, 9, 10
  • TPC-1, 2, 3
  • China-US
  • UK-Spain 1, 2, 3
  • Pencan-5
  • Penbal-3
  • BRACAN
  • BRUS
  • BUS-1
  • Colimbus-2, 3
  • Americas-1
  • Florida-St Thomas 1, 2
  • EurAfrica
  • TAIGU
  • BARSAV
  • ICECAN
  • SCOTICE

Today Mertech Marine is recognised as a pioneer and world leader in turnkey solutions for submarine cable recovery and recycling, particularly for shore-end projects where cables criss-cross and converge as they approach landfalls. Mertech Marine is uniquely positioned to remove these redundant cables safely and with greater efficiency and affordability by combining these often expensive shallow water projects with deep-sea recovery operations. Mertech Marine is also playing its part in the circular economy. There’s an incredible opportunity to make a meaningful, large-scale contribution to the green economy. Although these cables are no longer commercially operable, they should never be seen as waste. They’re packed with raw materials that can be repurposed and circulated back into the economy.

Consider the carbon footprint companies leave by conventional mining of virgin plastics, copper, and steel and then manufacturing these materials into marketable commodities. Now consider how much lighter the carbon load could be if these materials were “recovered from the sea” and regenerated as new, value-added products in the market.

Shore-end recovery operations by MV Layla

A system sustainable in nature and by nature

Through significant investment of its shareholders and years of research and development, Mertech Marine has created a unique process of recovering and dismantling these out-of-service cables has proven to avoid greenhouse gas emissions when compared to mining virgin material from ore. Their Port Elizabeth facility is ISO14001:2015 accredited, and a fundamental part of their mission is to find environmentally friendly and sustainable solutions towards recycling subsea cables. Mertech Marine supplies quality components to the copper, polyethylene, steel, and aluminium industries all over Africa, and they do it in an environmentally sustainable way.

Mertech Marine has found their anchor in world class innovation and sustainable design. It’s a model that is considered as part of the company’s responsibility as a business in today’s changing world. We have to move from linear to circular thinking in our businesses and find innovative ways to generate value from the resources we already have. The sooner we can make the shift to a circular economy, the greater advantage we’ll have in the long run.

Eckhard Bruckschen

A Master Mariner and MBA with more than 30 years of experience in the offshore submarine cable industry, Bruckschen has managed the construction of thousands of kilometers of submarine fiber-optic cables and submarine power cables.

Alwyn du Plessis

Du Plessis has been leading a dynamic team of business development professionals, innovative submarine engineers, and passionate metals and plastics recycling experts at Mertech Marine for the past eight years. Alwyn, a Chartered Accountant (SA) by trade, gained valuable experience over a 25-year career across a variety of industries with various multi-national companies. His current role at Mertech Marine spans across oceans and continents and encompasses cable acquisition and business development, marine operations of a fleet of cable recovery vessels, value-added marine services, sustainable recycling, and the circular economy, as well as sales and marketing of the recycled materials and value-added products.