clean up our ocean
A new wave of start-ups is tackling the complex challenge of cleaning up our oceans by building systems of convenience and finding new uses for the plastic polluting our planet.

We know the story: plastic waste is clogging our landfills, sullying our nature preserves and overwhelming the planet’s oceans. Discarded plastic is piling up in even the furthest-flung corners of the world, from the Himalayan mountains to the Maldives. 

This waste has become so ubiquitous that it’s in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Scientists estimate we consume a credit card’s worth of microplastic each year, so it’s lurking in your digestive system too. 

Twenty-two million kilograms of plastic streams into our oceans every day. Even as we brave the gargantuan job of collecting plastic litter from our sea and our beaches, more pours in. So how do we solve the issue of waste in our seas? This is the question that designers, social enterprises and entrepreneurs are now exploring. 

Much more complex than scrounging for bottles off the beach, a new wave of start-ups is dreaming up ways to tackle the pollution problem while also disrupting the plastic supply chain. Their ethos is two-fold: collection and waste management are not cure-alls; we must also be talking about reduction of production and consumption. 

The companies set to make the biggest impact are those creating solutions that are more appealing than their single-use plastic counterparts. For Ocean Bottle, a UK-based social enterprise that funds the collection of 1000 ocean-bound plastic bottles with every reusable bottle purchase, it’s about creating what co-founder Nick Doman calls “a system of convenience”. 

Single-use plastics are inarguably convenient, but Ocean Bottle isn’t trying to wrestle us out of our love affair with the easiest option. For them, it’s about solutions that work better than a grab-and-go plastic bottle. “Plastic is all about convenience, so if we’re going to see a shift away from it, we need to be thinking about solutions that are more efficient,” says Nick. 

Ocean Bottle

Ocean Bottle is working on several partnership ventures across the UK; one has seen the impact-based company team up with city water refill stations “to offer an option that is cheaper and easier than buying bottled water”, reveals Nick.

In a market saturated with reusable stand-ins, plastic alternatives must work hard if they’re going to succeed. Ocean Bottles have a smart-chip in their base which will soon allow bottle owners to fund the collection of even more ocean-bound plastic by using their bottle at partner locations such as gyms and cafes. It’s a win-win, says Nick. “Businesses can incentivise behaviour and consumers can connect and contribute to the plastic solution.”

For all its clever consumer triumphs, Ocean Bottle was not originally about creating a reusable product. Nick and his co-founder, William Pearson, had a simple goal: “We wanted to turn off the tap of plastic going into the water.” The pair toyed with several ideas that could fund better waste management systems in coastal communities and finally landed on a reusable bottle. A portion of revenue from the bottle sales would go towards paying above-market price for ocean-bound plastic in countries struggling with waste management.

“We asked ourselves, ‘are we just putting more crap into the world by creating yet another product?’” said Nick. Hundreds of consumer surveys later, the Ocean Bottle team had their answer: there simply wasn’t a bottle design out there that catered for everyday, long-term use. The Ocean Bottle is made from stainless steel and recycled plastic, is both dishwasher safe and designed for handwashing, and has a double opening that allows a dish brush inside.

Ocean Bottle’s success is rooted in the understanding of society’s convenience habit, and others are taking a similar stance. Not willing to disrupt consumer comfort, household cleaning company ZeroCo has created a drop-off system that works better for consumers.

In the home

Like an old-fashioned milkman model, ZeroCo delivers household cleaning and personal care products to your door in “beautifully designed, forever dispensers” made from plastic waste pulled from the ocean. Dispensers are refilled via pouches made from recycled landfill materials, which are sent back to the company in a prepaid envelope to be cleaned, sanitised and reused.

Disturbed by the rubbish he encountered when travelling the world, founder Mike Smith set himself a challenge: to think of an idea that would attack the problems at both ends of the plastic supply chain. “We need to do two things to solve the problem,” he says. “We need to stop making and using single-use plastic, and we need to do something about the mountains of plastic that have already found themselves in our rivers and oceans.”

Like the Ocean Bottle founders, Mike was “completely industry or category agnostic” when he started thinking about the plastics problem. “I knew I wanted to solve the problem in a way that would have the biggest impact, and that was my starting point,” he says. 

Mike spent “an uncomfortably long time” in supermarkets stalking people’s buying habits, but his “ah ha” moment came in the last three aisles, where the home cleaning and personal care products live. These are responsible for one billion single-use plastic bottles a year in Australia, only 12 per cent of which are estimated to be recycled. With his eyes on one of the most rampant polluters, Mike wanted to create an alternative that relied less on plastic and offered consumers a better option than buying the big brands. 

Convenience was to be at the heart of the solution. “The products we make — laundry liquid, shower gel, hand wash and house cleaners — are bulky items; we’re talking 20 kilos worth of stuff that you would otherwise have to lug home from the supermarket,” he says. The ZeroCo solution works because, like Ocean Bottle, it meets a triple-threat criteria: it taps into our obsession with convenience, makes proper use of plastic, and tackles marine plastic litter. But is life without plastic possible? Mike says that’s not the point. “Plastic in itself is not the devil — it’s been an incredible product for human expansion,” he says. “It’s less about demonising plastic and more about shining a spotlight on the way we’re misusing it.” 

The genius of plastic is that it’s cheap and lasts forever, points out Mike. “It’s not meant to be used once and chucked away.” ZeroCo celebrates the triumph of plastic technology through its forever dispensers, proving that solutions don’t have to be plastic-free, but rather plastic-appropriate. 

Enter Econyl

clean up our ocean
Photo credit | Cleonie Swim

The appropriate use of plastic is perhaps the key to a future with less waste. Garnering attention are the swimwear brands using recycled plastic waste recovered from the ocean, such as high-end Aussie favourite Peony and boutique brands including Cleonie. But follow the supply chain of these labels and you will arrive at the same place: Econyl.

Produced from recycled fishing nets, carpets and other such plastic waste, Econyl is a special nylon that was invented by the Italian company Aquafil nine years ago. It has spread quickly in the fashion and design world as the super material that turns waste into fashion solutions. 

The beauty of Econyl is that it performs exactly the same as virgin nylon and can be regenerated an infinite number of times without losing its quality, something that attracted Kitty Scott, founder of swimwear brand Cleonie, to the material. “The quality is just so high and it’s beautiful to sew with, so it’s a no-brainer for both the design and production element as well as the sustainable side of Cleonie,” she says. 

Cleonie means goddess of the water, a fitting name for a brand that produces swimwear made from plastics recovered from the ocean. “The idea was to blend beautiful design with a sustainable focus,” says Kitty, who began working on her brand full time in 2018. “I wanted to put something into the market that was well-made locally and from the most sustainable fabric I could find.”

Labels like Cleonie are brand upcyclers — creating beauty out of waste — but looking at Kitty’s swimwear, you wouldn’t guess she has made sustainability her mission before even the design elements. Crucially, Cleonie swimwear proves that conscientious fashion can compete with the mainstream fashion industry in terms of aesthetics. It’s certainly not about settling for second-best for the planet’s sake; alternative fabrics don’t equal frumpy designs.

A mile away from hemp overalls and hippie pants, the brand has become known for its beautiful prints, often the result of collaborations with Aussie artists Kitty admires, including Wendy Bills and Bonnie Gray. 

Econyl allows brands to rethink what sustainable fashion looks like, giving designers the tools to create pieces that are simultaneously beautiful, durable and sustainable. The industry’s uptake of such materials shows that the opportunities are endless if we are willing to rethink our approach to waste. 

The path to cleaning up our oceans is not a simple one and will require sweeping changes across all levels, but as these businesses underscore, one thing is clear: clever solutions, not the same old problems, are what is needed. In the end, the real challenge is to combat the model of big business that thrives on wasteful products and packaging. But we don’t need to wait for cosmetic laws that ban plastic shopping bags or straws to see that change. “Government, big business and consumers don’t act independently,” says Nick. “Consumers buy from businesses that lobby governments voted in by the people. Changing your buying habits has a ripple effect, sending signals to businesses.” 

But if Ocean Bottle is fighting wasteful big-business models at a grassroots level, ZeroCo is going straight for the jugular. “The only way big business is ever going to change is if their bottom line is affected,” says Mike. “We’re trying to hurt their bottom line by stealing as much of their business as we can.”