The scale of the ocean plastic problem is enough to make your heart sink. And yet there is a raft of new startups tackling this head-on, thinking in solutions and taking action. Here are two companies with very different approaches to cleaning up the seas.
It was in December 2017, as Trieu Huynh was walking on a beautiful beach in Bali, when he saw it. “I’ll never forget that moment. It was like the moment in ‘Independence Day’, when Will Smith’s character first lays eyes on the aliens.”
The aliens might have been a more welcome sight to what Trieu actually saw. “It was a trash island. The size of half a football field, floating about 100 metres away from the bay, approaching a group of surfers.”
These islands have unfortunately become inevitable due to our problem with ocean plastic. Each year, 8 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into our oceans – the equivalent to a garbage truck emptying a full load of plastic, every minute, every day, for a whole year.
“Wearable over the hip or calf, the bag allows divers and surfers to collect trash on their oceanic adventures”
The night that Trieu saw the trash island, he looked online for a bag to wear while surfing which could be used to collect ocean trash. After finding nothing, he set about making one himself. “I always say, ‘always make prototypes’,” says Trieu, who originally trained as a graphic designer. “The only way to know if something truly works is to test it.”
It’s a philosophy
The prototypes led to products, which led to the creation of the Trshbg company. Wearable over the hip or calf, the bag allows divers and surfers to collect trash on their oceanic adventures. In the course of only a year, the company has gone from producing its first bag to making a few thousand bags per month. But it’s growth and success lies in the fact that they sell more than just a bag. They sell a philosophy that turns every surfer and diver into an ocean cleaner. “We want to make it clear to our customers that they are the first line of defence in natural preservation,” Trieu emphasises.
And to those who would argue that picking up individual pieces of plastic is insignificant, Trieu has two powerful points. Firstly, that “as a conservative estimate, plastic takes 500 years to erode in the ocean. So you can guarantee that over such a long period of time, it will cause damage in some form. Damage to the reefs, damage to the animals and its microplastics will ultimately end up on your plate.”
But secondly, there is a potentially seismic impact of having every one of the 7 million divers and 35 million surfers buy into that philosophy. It’s why the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) have signed up as an official partner of Trshbg, to educate future divers about their responsibilities.
Naturally, Trshbg’s products are made sustainably, using old banners and scooter tyres, sourced personally by Trieu in Bali. “The mechanics laughed at me when I asked them how much they wanted for the old tyres. They asked me if I realised it was trash.”
“You don’t have to be a hippy, or tree-hugger to care about the planet anymore”
You know what they say. One man’s trash is another man’s opportunity to clean the oceans. Or an opportunity to create sustainable water bottles, in the case of Nick Doman, the co-founder of Ocean Bottle. Unlike Trshbg, with its focus on clearing plastic already adrift among the waves, Ocean Bottle makes insulated reusable water bottles made in part with plastic collected before it enters our seas. Furthermore, each sale funds the collection of at least 1,000 ocean-bound plastic bottles, with the help of their global partners at The Plastic Bank. If it seems straightforward, it is. The company runs under the mantra of “No-Bullshit Sustainability”. Nick defines this as “saying exactly what we will do, actually doing it, and tracking it.”
Like Trshbg, Ocean Bottle is a prime example of a company that is committed to sustainable profitability, with an emphasis on sustainability. “We didn’t want the bottle’s impact to be a token. We wanted it to be as impactful as possible,” Nick says. But as Nick explains, at the time Ocean Bottle was launched, there was some confusion as to whether they were a charity, or a business. “There was a sense that you either make a profit, or you do something good”, which, according to Nick, was partly due to the poor practices of companies who exaggerate, “greenwash” or lie about their environmentalism.
On this point, Trieu is in firm agreement with Nick. “Right now, curing the planet has been outsourced to NGOs, by brands who tell you that they will donate to charities, but only if you buy their product.” In essence, a brand declaring its intention to donate a portion of their profits is a murky, grey area that offers less than it promises. On the positive side, as Nick notes, the greenwashing phenomenon “keeps us honest and encourages us to be as transparent as possible in our messaging to pay back in-kind our consumer’s belief in us.”
Power to the people
By the time Nick co-founded Ocean Bottle, he was under no illusions as to the “need for private industry to take the lead” in the fight for conservation. “A government’s progress is always too slow and not something we could trust. But we also felt strongly about doing business for the greater good.”
From the perspective of both Nick and Trieu, in spite of governmental inaction (or perhaps because of it) it’s private companies that need to be the ones driving innovation to satisfy the desire people have to help the planet. And that desire is evident in the growth of both their companies. When Ocean Bottle first started pre-selling on Indiegogo at the start of 2019, their message was powerful enough to help the company exceed their funding goal by $255,000. Since launching in January 2019, Ocean Bottle have sold enough reusable bottles to collect 30 million plastic bottles. Their aim by 2025 is to intercept 7 billion ocean-bound plastic bottles.
Trshbg was helped on its way after a videographer saw Trieu surfing with his bag and asked if he could film it in action. The footage was eventually used in a promotional video that was widely shared online. As Trieu puts it, “there is such an appetite among people to do something about plastic.”
Even Trieu’s fellow surfers, who were initially more reticent than divers to wear the products, are now just as enthusiastic about Trshbg as any other consumer. According to Trieu, part of the appeal is the cool factor. “Surfers tell me they feel like Lara Croft with the calf bag!”
And that’s a very interesting insight into the modern-day perceptions of environmentalism. You don’t have to be a hippy, or tree-hugger to care about the planet anymore. We’re at the stage now where even surfers consider a wearable trash-collecting accessory something which makes them cooler. As if they were ever lacking in coolness.
Nevertheless, it would be simplistic to suggest that people in general are switched on and that our leaders are not. The truth is far more complex. “It’s not an isolated system,” Nick explains. “Consumers, business, government, it’s all intrinsically linked. Consumers vote in governments, governments set regulations, businesses lobby governments and sell to consumers. We all need to start caring about the planet and about each other for true progress to happen.”
It looks like a shift is underway. The climate is becoming one of the top voter issues of our time. Indeed, in 2019, half of all countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center viewed climate change as the top threat to their nation. Across all countries, 67% considered climate change a major threat, an increase of +11% from 2013.
And yet on this subject, governments seem to lag behind public opinion. Just last month, the Australian government was found by a national auditor to have categorically “failed in its duty to protect the environment.” The European Union is failing to meet 29 of its 35 self-defined environmental objectives for 2020. And the US recently pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement citing how its pledge of $3bn would place an “unfair economic burden” on Americans… the same year Trump increased the annual military spending by $54bn to a modest $639bn.
Although it’s an inconvenient truth, the “failures” of our governments have to be viewed as reflections of our society. Western governments have for decades shipped their trash to Asia, in order to pad their own environmental figures at the expense of the recipient countries. The issue is, that they have been outsourcing it at such a volume that the recipient countries are starting to return to sender.
The reason this isn’t more of a scandal is that it’s easier for us to not think about these things. It doesn’t fit with our world view of ocean waste being more of a “poor country problem”. A case in point comes as Trieu recalls walking on a beach in Bali, overhearing a conversation between two Dutch people complaining about the amount of trash around them, before flicking their cigarette butts onto the beach.
Perfection is overrated
For companies such as Ocean Bottle and Trshbg, there is an understanding of their limits as to what they can do on a policy level. According to Nick, consumers don’t currently have the buying options available to them to effectively counter climate change, something which needs intervention at the higher levels. And for Trieu to fulfil his ultimate business objective of becoming “obsolete”, he realises there needs to essentially be a private industry-led revolution.
“Progress is better than perfection. If you are only seeking perfection, you will become depressed”
But what both companies speak to when it comes to the subject of environmentalism is the power of action. Both companies saw where they could make a difference and ran with it. Nick and his co-founders were frustrated that no one was taking a lead in tackling the ocean plastic crisis. They realised that there was also a gap in the market, not just for their product, but for a company that could be for purpose as well as profit, providing people with livelihoods, while helping consumers in their goal of becoming better allies to the planet. Oh yeah, and doing wonderful things for the ocean at the same time.
Likewise, Trieu refused to do nothing after seeing the trash island, and it was through a relentless process of constant innovation that has seen Trshbg continue to grow. “It’s all about action,” Trieu explains. “Progress is better than perfection. If you are only seeking perfection, you will become depressed.”
You can’t help but think here about the reasons behind the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Did the agreement represent ecological perfection? No. Did it represent progress? Of course. But for Trump and his binary vision of “good” and “bad”, mere progress wasn’t enough.
But as we rightly apply pressure to those who represent us, in the polling booths, in our marches, in our strikes, we need to look at the example of companies such as Trshbg and Ocean Bottle as a source for motivation.
Both these companies implicitly understood that our current governance structures lack a certain agility or desire to effectively tackle the climate crisis. For most of us, that realisation might be our conclusion. The end of the road. For Trshbg and Ocean Bottle, and companies like theirs, it was the start.