Our founders' story - how to save the oceans from plastic pollution?

A landfill in India

Our first experience of the waste management sector in Asia was nothing short of eye-opening. 

We visited projects funded by large multinationals that had more than questionable working environments, we went to landfills guarded by armed forces, and a waste-to-energy plant that was still under construction.

We spoke to waste pickers roaming landfills collecting anything of value to sell. Talked to farmers that had lost 70% of their livestock because their cattle drank contaminated water from illegal landfills; met with landfill owners; NGOs; government officials; small recycling businesses; shady scrap dealers who tried to sell us a container load of old telephones, and scientists who were testing self-built chemical recycling plants in their backyard.

We were offered entire containers of unregistered e-waste in Sri Lanka, and fake waste management certificates in India. We saw children walking barefoot over scrap.


But we also met a lot of people that were extremely concerned about plastic pollution that got into the industry because they share the same values as us: they care deeply for our environment and want to be part of the solution. 

But let’s tell this story from the beginning, with the question that started it all: what can we do about the huge volumes of plastic floating around in our oceans?

How it all started

The three of us met in Zurich. At that time, Bosse was working in a computer vision startup before setting up a fund in the cryptocurrency field. Florin and I were working for a tech start-up.
Our privileged lives allowed us to travel to more than 70 countries. The main activities on these trips? Sailing, surfing, hiking, skiing, or just enjoying a cold drink on one of the beautiful beaches of Southeast Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

It was this exposure to the outdoor and surfing community where we first encountered the problem of plastic pollution. It was everywhere.
In fact, more than 11 million tonnes of plastic waste enter our oceans every year. A number so huge, you can barely imagine it. But for us, this was a turning point, the point when we decided that we wanted to dedicate our working lives to protecting and preserving the oceans we love so dearly.

What followed was a period of extensive research, joining conferences on circular economy, industry gatherings of plastic recyclers, lobby meetings of waste-to-energy companies, onsite visits of recycling companies, and even a spontaneous trip to Kuwait. Finally, we came to the conclusion: if we really want to solve the plastic pollution dilemma, we need to understand the situation where plastic pollution is at its worst: Southern Asia. And so three weeks later we were on a plane to India. With a clear mission: to understand why so much plastic enters the oceans from there and why the litter rate is so much higher than elsewhere.

Our on-ground research trip

We stayed with a local family, and to our surprise, nobody knew what was happening to the waste in their bin. So we decided to follow their waste bag. We soon ended up at a dumpsite where waste was put on agricultural land without any protection or treatment, and then set on fire, to reduce the waste volume.

And that happens on different scales. Many people in India and other parts of South Asia burn their waste in their backyards, by their front doors, or on the curbside, because waste collection infrastructure, as we know it, simply does not exist.

And so the threat to the environment and people’s health actually starts way before plastic enters the oceans. We saw people living and raising families in landfills, waste villages where people search through the waste looking for anything that they can sell.

No one needs to explain the circular economy to the people of India. In a country where household incomes are as low as 150$/month, anything of value will be collected and fed back into the economy. Everything that can be recycled will be recycled.

A huge informal sector exists, with waste collectors working under inhumane conditions on unsecured landfills collecting plastic bottles and other recyclable plastics that have value, and can be turned into new products by hundreds of small recycling companies.

 

The main problem

But what isn’t collected are foils, contaminated plastic packaging, and multi-layer packaging, like chip packets, sauce sachets, etc. This material is either impossible to recycle or there is no demand from the market for the products. That means it faces one of two scenarios:

Scenario 1: It is openly burned in small backyard fires or in landfills.

Scenario 2: It is carried away into nature by the monsoon or strong winds.

The waste clogs up the sewage systems and passes through rivers until it finally ends up in the oceans where more than 90% sinks into depths from where it will never be recovered.

We were faced with stark reality. Until this point, we thought that we could somehow solve the problem by recycling plastic. But it was now very clear that recycling alone was not enough.

If the trip taught us one thing, it was that nothing of value will be thrown away. And that also formed the basis for our solution. 

In Germany, producers of packaging waste need to pay a fee for every piece of packaging that is put into the market. That fee then finances the continuous waste collection and treatment - and this has become a multi-billion € industry in Germany alone.

The way out - building an economy where plastic is too valuable to waste

So our idea was to build an equal economy for the non-recyclable plastic that isn’t currently collected in Asia because it has no value. We spoke to recycling companies in India to see if they would sell us their rejected material that they can’t recycle and asked waste pickers if they would collect the material that they usually left behind if we paid them a fixed price per kilogram.

Unsurprisingly the answer was always: yes.

Now that this was clarified, we faced a new problem: What to do with the waste? And how to finance the collection and disposal?

Back in Europe we started talking to the large consumer goods companies and asked them: if we offer you an environmental service by removing plastic from the environment and safely disposing of it, will you pay the bill?

And the surprising answer was: Yes.

Followed by a whole lot of unsurprising ‘buts’:

But...how do you make sure that the plastic is collected safely?

But...how do you make sure that the plastic is disposed of properly?

But...how do I make sure that you actually perform your service?

Our solution

So back to India. We started scouting for local waste collection companies that we could trust with their operations. Where we could be sure that work environments were safe, that no child labor was in place, and no one was forced to work. And we contracted them to collect the non-recyclable plastics for us.

First but: check.

Next, we started talking to Geocycle, the waste management company of Holcim, the largest cement manufacturing company in the world. They can utilize plastic waste in their production process, a technology called co-processing. Using the non-recyclable plastic waste as fuel recovers the energy of the waste and replaces coal and gas as fuel. Dust, soil, and other mineral contaminants in the waste stream are recycled into new cement. They immediately offered their help and entered a partnership with us.

Second but: check.

Finally, Florin worked his magic and built an entire software that tracks each step of the disposal process from waste collection to the final co-processing of the material. With our digital platform, we were now able to deliver the proof of work that the material has been collected and disposed of properly.

Third but: check.

 

Leading the path for plastic neutrality

We call this system, where brands offset their plastic footprint by financing the collection and recovery of plastic waste ‘plastic neutrality’.

After 18 months in business, we now have the capacity to process more than the 11 million tonnes of plastic waste that enter our oceans every year, we have partners on the ground who can collect a lot more than they do currently, and we have more than 100 customers who want to be part of the solution to solve the ocean plastic dilemma and have partnered with us on this journey. 

To date, we have recovered more than 600 tonnes of plastic waste that would otherwise be floating around in our oceans by now.
What we now need are more brands to take responsibility and become plastic neutral with us.