A legacy of leaving less behind

For most people, the ocean bottom is a mystery. Likewise, the extent of ocean pollution at the depths is little known –  around 75% of the waste in the oceans lies at their bottom. The problem is not only the current level of waste, but also the amount that is still flowing in1. Billions of tons of plastic and other non- biodegradables end up in the oceans, most arriving from landfills or as a result of poor garbage collection and processing systems.

Javier Goyeneche founded Ecoalf in Spain in 2012 as a sustainable fashion company that creates products from recycled materials, including plastic bottles, cotton, wool, coffee grounds and fishing nets. His intention was to redesign how textiles are manufactured and create recycled products with the same quality, design and technical properties as the best non-recycled products.

While ocean waste remains out of sight for most people, fishermen are confronted by trash trapped in their fishing nets on a daily basis.

Three years later, Foundation Ecoalf was founded with the mission of educating local populations and global consumers about the catastrophic potential of maritime debris. Ecoalf’s products and work of the Foundation shine a light on the circular economy: the need for business models that eliminate waste, keep materials and products in use, and develop regenerative natural systems.

Bringing the problem of waste to the surface

While ocean waste remains out of sight for most people, fishermen are confronted by trash trapped in their fishing nets on a daily basis. “One day while I was in a port, a fisherman came to me and invited me to come fish with him to see how much waste gets caught in the nets. Every time you pull out the nets, they are full of waste,” says Javier Goyeneche. The experience inspired Goyeneche to create the Ecoalf Foundation and oversee a project dedicated to extracting this waste from the seas. Upcycling the Oceans operates off the Spanish Mediterranean coast and in Thailand.

In Spain, the Ecoalf Foundation collaborates with two other non-profits (HAP Foundation and Ecoembes), 3,000 fishermen with 700 boats, and 60 ports to collect thousands of metric tons of maritime debris each year. The waste is then brought to specialized companies, which either recycle it, or break it down into particles that can be used for textile fibers. This yarn has the same qualities as new polymer materials, and can be used by Ecoalf to create a new generation of garments, sneakers and accessories and other companies for their textiles and other products.

Even though Goyeneche expected to collect less waste in Spain/the Mediterranean last year compared to 2017 (recycling rates are relatively high in Spain), 7% more waste was in fact collected in 2018. He attributes this to the above average number of rainy days in Spain, which have led to more waste being swept into the ocean. In Thailand, Ecoalf Foundation’s work to date has revolved not only around collecting ocean debris but also educating tourists and local citizens about the gravity of the problem.

Sponsored by the Thai Ministry of Tourism and the Thai chemicals company, PTTGC, the foundation works with fishermen, associations of volunteer trash collectors and scuba divers to remove plastic bottles from the waters surrounding Samui, Samed, Koh Tao and Phuket. In its first year, the Foundation launched a program to educate visitors and locals. Currently in its second year, the project has established a process by which plastic waste can be converted into new garments and a swimwear collection, which will be available in stores in April.

Trashing the traditional fashion template

Ecoalf operates with the view of educating consumers and the wider population on the need to act now. Its products illustrate how a circular economy can operate, with materials being reused after the end of products’ lives. Using recycled waste such as plastic bottles and old tires, the Spanish company produces clothing, shoes and accessories that are both fashionable and sustainable. In Spain, for instance, it turns old tires into flip-flops.

The company has also utilized fishermen’s nets, which are made of the best quality nylon, as well as consumer coffee grounds, whose natural properties – fast-drying, it has odour control and UV protection – could be used when it is turned into powder, and ultimately mixed with other fabrics to make technical garments.

Ecoalf has an agreement with a large coffee chain in Taiwan. It collects coffee leftovers each morning, they are dried, converted into powder and mixed with plastic polymers. So far, Ecoalf has also developed more than 250 different fabrics through its investment in technology, R&D and innovation. The company has raised awareness of its sustainable approach through collaborations with prominent brands such as Barneys of New York, Apple, and GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow’s clothing brand. In 2016, it showcased its recycled clothing and footwear at Starbucks’ flagship store in Seattle.

Molding future attitudes

The Ecoalf Foundation is currently seeking funding to expand its Upcycling the Oceans project to the entire Mediterranean Sea. Conversations with multiple governments have already started and Goyeneche is hopeful that the project will begin in 2019. As Goyeneche realized following his boat trip, many people are not aware of the seriousness of pollution at the bottom of the sea.

Not only that, there is very little awareness of how much waste from landfills ends up in the seas. In his words, instead of “what planet are we leaving our children?” we need to start asking ourselves “what children are we leaving to the planet?” “Without educating people, changing their behavior and changing how we produce and consume, the problem is never going to be resolved.”

1 https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/02/150212-ocean-debris-plastic-garbage-patches-science/


You might like this

How blueberries are lifting people in rural China out of poverty

Traditionally, farmers in poor rural areas of China grew crops with relatively lower economic value such as rice, corn, and tea. The lack of access to markets where they could sell their harvest compounded their problems.

Coming from a poor village himself, Yang Shufang, the founder and CEO of Zhejiang Lanmei Agriculture (“Lanmei”), knows first-hand the hardships that this life entails. His experience motivated him to do something that would help lift his fellow villagers out of poverty.

Since 1987, when blueberries were introduced in China from the US, the fruit has been increasing in popularity, particularly among the middle and upper classes in first and second-tier cities. Since 2001, blueberry cultivation scaled up, with Shandong, Jiangsu and Jilin being the first provinces to introduce blueberry plantation at scale. Demand for blueberries outstrips supply, so prices are healthy. In this trend, Yang Shufang saw a way to boost the incomes of Chinese farmers.

For the past eight years, through development of the blueberry farming industry, Lanmei has established a path to greater prosperity. It sells nursery stocks to farmers, offers training programs and seminars, monitors plant growth, and solves technical issues that farmers may have. It has brought up to an 185% increase in incomes for farmers in poorer regions, and with it greater security of livelihood and, ultimately, a blueprint for sustainable rural development within farming communities.

Partnerships for success

Collaborating with local farmers has been critical to improving incomes and standards of living. Through the development of well-acclimatized seedlings and active engagement with farmers, Lanmei has been able to create a robust market for blueberry cultivation, attracting more participation from low-income farmers.

So far, it has helped more than 12,000 farmers to increase their personal annual income by at least 50%, to RMB 30,000 for each farmer. Blueberry farming has also become a critical source of job opportunities for farmers over the age of 50, who are less competitive on the job market. As land under cultivation grows, ‘cultivation leaders’ in local communities require additional help, hence need part-time, flexible labour to work in fields several hours a day. This provides older workers with extra income. As a result, grandparents have been able to provide additional financial support to the household while looking after their grandchildren in the afternoon.

Earning prospects from blueberry farming alone are not enough to prevent migration to cities, but with Lanmei’s sustainable approach in blueberry value chain development, combined with the productivity contribution of grandparents, families in some regions will be able earn more than city jobs pay.

Local blueberry consumption is also helping to improve the nutrition of poorer, local farmers whose diets are restricted by price and choice of food.

Cultivating connections

To manage the cultivation and sales across the 12 provinces it covers, Lanmei has more recently entered into a strategic partnership with Zhejiang Supply Company (ZSC). As part of the China Co-operative Network (CCON), ZSC can use its relationships with farmers at the grassroots level to integrate Lanmei into its networks and provide support across its operations.

Apart from working with farmers, Lanmei has also co-operated with the governments of more than 10 state-level poor counties to promote and develop the blueberry industry and improve the livelihood of local residents.

Collaborations are also crucial when it comes to funding Lanmei’s operations. Financial support comes from many sources, including significant investment from Credit Suisse’s Asia Impact Investment Fund, and government subsidies for new and high-technology enterprises and other research projects.

Discover more content on the topics that inspire, engage and inform the world we live in today at the FT Channels hub.