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.
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.”