Over the last three years SEAQUAL INITIATIVE has been working with fishermen along the coast of the Spanish Mediterranean to fight plastic marine pollution. Retrieved ocean plastic is turned into SEAQUAL® YARN, a 100% recycled polyester fiber, which is then returned to the industry where it’s transformed into new sustainable products. Jack Wolfskin is collaborating for the third season with the initiative. But the upcycling of marine plastic is just a starting point says CEO Michel Chtepa. “The yarn only plays one part in a holistic approach to fight the problem.”
Mr. Chtepa, how has the current pandemic affected your operations?
The cleaning operation has been put on hold. So the past few weeks we mainly worked from our home offices and continued to develop all upcoming SEAQUAL INITIATIVE activities. But it gave our team a little time to catch our breath because we have been working really hard for the last three and a half years.
I guess ocean waste will keep coming, global health crisis or not?
It would be ideal if all marine waste would be gone one day. Then SEAQUAL INITIATIVE would be something else. Right now, we work with and use plastic, but we are an initiative, not a product, not a recycler, and not a manufacturer. We don’t want to be linked to any kind of product or technology because that would limit us. We will keep evolving. Maybe one day we can work in the field of biopolymers. Our ultimate goal is to achieve a blue economy.
Let’s talk about SEAQUAL INITIATIVE’s pilot program. You collaborate with fishers who retrieve plastic waste from the ocean. How much marine litter has been retrieved from the sea since the beginning of the project?
Since the beginning of the project, an estimated 600 tons of trash were retrieved from the sea.
Can you see a difference in plastic waste on land or in the water?
No, it is too early for that. That’s another reason why we are working on a bigger picture. We will be able to measure the impact once we can engage the territories more holistically. If we don’t flip the switch, the littering will just continue. Ask me again in two years.
How much marine waste was transformed into new products?
In the past three years 99 tons of marine plastic have been turned into Upcycled Marine Plastic by SEAQUAL INITIATIVE approved facilities, which is then returned to the industry to be transformed into new sustainable products.
The SEAQUAL ® YARN is made from 10% Upcycled Marine Plastic and 90% post-consumer PET from land sources, so we have produced around 990 tons of upcycled material so far.
How do the fishermen benefit from participating?
In Europe, we are not allowed to pay the fisherman. Retrieving trash from the water is mandatory. What we can do to support them is to create value for them by raising awareness and also by creating activities that raise money. If a brand films a video about fisherman retrieving trash from the sea, like Jack Wolfskin has done in the past, the brand has to pay a fee. This fee goes straight to the fishermen, and that is the only way how we can directly support fisheries financially.
Indirectly, we support them by helping show their value. Nowadays, fishermen have a hard time surviving because they have to compete with businesses like 250 Million Euro hotels in their coastal cities. They need to demonstrate that they can still bring value to the community. They need to show that they play a significant role in the fight against marine pollution, which is also impacting their operations. They need to prove that they contribute to the closed-loop economy, that they practice slow fishing by catching local, seasonal fish on a small scale. Some fisheries conduct studies to find out where the trash comes from, how it gets into the sea, how it is moving in the water, and what we can learn from that. Through collaborations, we are supporting them in these efforts.
What kind of products are made from Upcycled Marine Plastic by SEAQUAL?
You can make woven, non-woven, extrusion, and injection molding products. Our licensees are producing furniture, home textiles, bags, shoes, clothes, or car interiors from Upcycled Marine Plastic by SEAQUAL. We have worked with over 600 companies from over 46 different countries around the world.
You have been collaborating with Jack Wolfskin for three years now, what does that mean for SEAQUAL INITIATIVE?
For us, it was a good opportunity to collaborate with Jack Wolfskin as a well-known German outdoor brand. Jack Wolfskin’s commitment in the past was a joint effort to raise awareness and to inspire consumers. What I am expecting from all collaborating brands in the future, is that they see more value in being part of our initiative. That’s why I am developing a foundation. It will help brands to support specific projects and have access to more content to entertain their relationship with their audience.We just announced the launch of SEAQUAL INITIATIVE 2.0 to our licensees. .
What else are you expecting from collaborating companies and the government to help fight the problem of marine pollution?
Every company should implement a commitment to the five Rs into its own DNA: Recycle, Reuse, Reduce, Refuse, and Repair. When designing a product, manufacturers should think about using the best quality. And brands need to raise awareness and engage their community to act for the planet.
Governments have the power to implement new regulations, for example when the EU reached an agreement to ban single-use plastic. Governments also need to support local projects, implement better waste management programs, and recycling facilities in some areas.
What can an average person do to help?
If each one of us sorts his or her trash at an early step, materials can be reused and recycled more easily. When people don’t separate, the waste becomes damage, it’s complexifying the problem. Another crucial aspect is considering one’s own consumption. Everyone should be aware of their own power to demand change from brands. We, as individuals, need to drive the market by giving our preference to brands that are really committed. Your choice matters! Things will only change if the market changes and the market is in the hands of each one of us consumers. Every day we can make a commitment through our behavior.
Has working at SEAQUAL changed something in your personal life? Did it change habits or your own consumer behavior?
My habits have changed completely. Three years ago, I decided to dive into the SEAQUAL project because it is very emotional. SEAQUAL INITIATIVE is a company that I am managing, but it has completely changed the way I work. Now, it is really about doing things for a good cause. It’s about aligning business with a reason to exist, aligning a mission with a commitment. Working with SEAQUAL has changed things profoundly for me; everything I do today is very emotional. It’s also always rational because we need to do business, but I’m really driven by emotion.
Some things in my daily life have changed, as well. First of all, I am sorting my trash more carefully. For the first time in my life, I started gardening. I am growing my own food now: potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, all sorts of vegetables. When I shop, I use Loop (deposit system, editor’s note), I buy locally and seasonally.
I also changed my travel habits. We have to travel for work sometimes, but we avoid it we can meet digitally. We really consider these kinds of decisions. I used to get a new car every three years. My current car is over ten years old, and it works perfectly. I simply don’t see things in the same light as before.
The SEAQUAL Collection of Jack Wolfskin