Interview

The man with the bottle to take on the ocean plastic problem

The man with the bottle to take on the ocean plastic problem

Words: Catherine Early

Photos: Sophie Green

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William Pearson was horrified by the amount of plastic he saw floating in the seas. He started Ocean Bottle to do something about it.

William Pearson knew all about ocean plastic. But it was a year spent working at sea, and seeing the scale of the problem with his own eyes, that made him want to act.

Having recently graduated in engineering, Pearson felt like a break, and landed a job on a boat headed for the Maldives. Although he’d been sailing since he was a child, he was shocked by what he saw.

“I saw it everywhere. The people on the boat brought over 1000 plastic bottles just for drinking water. They were taken off to an island where they were burned – it was just smouldering in the distance,” Pearson says.

“We were in the most peaceful place in the world, but the plastic was ‘out of sight, out of mind’”

“It was a mad juxtaposition where we were in the most peaceful place in the world, but the plastic was ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and just handed over. There was no proper waste management,” he says. On a trip to Colombia, Pearson witnessed rivers full of plastic being flushed out to sea by rain.

No excuse for single-use

Around 22 million kilograms of plastic flows into the ocean each day, and the amount of plastic in the ocean is expected to quadruple by 2040. Waste infrastructure has not kept pace with production and consumption, particularly in poorer countries, where people then bear the brunt of the pollution. Driven to be part of the solution, Pearson developed a range of reusable water bottles to replace single-use plastic versions and help fund the collection of plastic rubbish, to prevent yet more of it ending up in our seas. Ocean Bottle was born.

“Ed Sheeran ordered a batch of bottles. We couldn’t actually believe it”

Launched in 2019, Ocean Bottle markets itself as “the reusable water bottle that actually makes a difference”. The bottle is mostly made from recycled steel and ocean-bound plastic, and its vacuum insulation keeps drinks either hot or cold. But it does much more than just replace the need for buying drinks in plastic containers. The purchase of each one funds the collection of plastic equivalent to another 1,000 bottles by people living in coastal communities. In return, these collectors trade plastic for money or digital credit to spend on goods, healthcare, tuition and access to microfinance via an organisation called Plastic Bank.

Becoming the bottle guy

Pearson became so obsessed with bottles, people began to refer to him as “the bottle guy”. The initial crowdfund and launch was very stressful, Pearson recalls. “You’ve put your whole life into it for a year, but you have no idea what’s going to happen, you could just fall flat on your face.”

In fact, people from 88 countries ordered bottles. “It was just amazing to see the message and the mission resonate so wide,” he says. “Ed Sheeran ordered a batch of bottles. We couldn’t actually believe it. He was one of the first customers.”

Now the company has funded the collection of almost two million kilos of plastic.

Pearson came to be known as ‘the bottle guy’. Photo courtesy of Ocean Bottle

The collected plastic is sorted, weighed and turned into pellets locally to be sold and used by other companies. Ocean Bottle so far has collectors in Indonesia, Philippines, Haiti, Brazil and Egypt.

Pearson describes Ocean Bottle as “impact company first, reusable bottle company second”. The bottle effectively provides something tangible that connects people to meaningful action on the problem, he explains.

“People feel that they can’t have much impact as an individual. We’re really keen to reverse that sentiment”

“Unfortunately, people feel quite hopeless and that they can’t have much impact as an individual. We’re really keen to reverse that sentiment – it’s about enabling people to be more sustainable, and then amplifying their impact by encouraging their friends, family and colleagues to take action.” The bottle is a place to start.

While Pearson is pleased with their achievements so far, he admits they are “just scraping the surface” of the problem. The company’s target for 2025 is to prevent seven billion plastic bottles from entering the ocean. Ocean Bottle has partner businesses such as gyms and cafes who will fund further collection if people use their bottles there, meaning impact can be scaled up by using the bottle, not just through the initial purchase.

How plastic pays for school

The Ocean Bottle team has visited Indonesia to witness their impact first hand, and meet some of the plastic collectors. “It was incredible to hear their life stories, and the way that collecting plastic is creating impact for them. They are increasing their income by up to 60%, which means they can afford things like maternal care, or giving their kids a proper education,” he says.

Pearson admits that setting up the business has been personally challenging, and that there have been times when he felt like quitting. Though both his parents are entrepreneurs, they had always told their son not to start his own business, telling him it was an “absolute nightmare”. “I ignored them, and did it anyway, for better or for worse. But it’s incredibly difficult, you have no resources whatsoever, and you basically have to do everything yourself.”

Even when the company got a celebrity endorsement from Ed Sheeran, “we lost his bottles in the post! We had to drive them to him to get them to his concert on time.”

“There’s so much we need to do to ensure future generations have the same resources we’ve had”

Several bottles in the first batch produced also had a fault and ended up leaking, so the team had to check every one individually before sending them out. “There are so many challenges that get thrown at you in those initial phases,” he says.

The even bigger challenge now is accelerating solutions like this that seek to protect nature and reduce humanity’s impact on the planet. “Time is running out and there’s so much we need to do to ensure that future generations have the same resources that we have had,” he says. “There is rightly a lot of doom and gloom about our environment, but we have to move towards really scaling up solutions that are going to create positive impact, and enable us to solve these huge global challenges that we face. By getting people on board and taking a positive approach, we can conquer the problems,” he says.

Plastic waste is a major problem on the coasts of countries like Thailand. Photo: Jadezmith/Shutterstock

One important way forward, he believes, is transparency, so customers know where their money is going. The company published its first impact report this year. “The issues that we face are largely due to opaque supply chains, and consumers really not knowing the impact of what they bought. The future is enabling customers to know what a product or service has actually done,” he says.

He’s optimistic. “We can’t believe the team we’ve got, where we’ve got to, and the impact we’ve created. I think we almost have the feeling that it’s still day one, and I’m just so excited for the impact that we’re hoping to create over the next few years.”

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