“If we don’t flip the switch, the littering will just continue”

On a mission to help fight plastic pollution, SEAQUAL INITIATIVE has been working with ocean clean-up programs and local communities (fishermen, NGOs, and many others) around the world together to clean our oceans. Retrieved plastic waste from the ocean 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 this is not the end of the story, “It is just a starting point” CEO Michel Chtepa says. “The yarn only plays one part in a holistic approach to fight marine plastic.” SEAQUAL INITIATIVE is evolving and moving into a new phase, reinforcing the need for our collaborators to voice the emotion and commitment, Together for a Clean Ocean’.

Mr. Chtepa, how has the current pandemic affected your operations?

Most cleaning operations have been put on hold. So, for the past few weeks we have mainly been working from our home offices and continuing to develop future SEAQUAL INITIATIVE activities. This has given our team a little time to catch our breath, because we have been working really hard for the last three and a half years. We have launched our new website, a wonderful and comprehensive platform to learn more about SEAQUAL INITIATIVE, our collaborating and projects.

I guess ocean waste will keep coming, global health crisis or not?

In an ideal world, there would be no more marine waste, but yes, global health crisis or not, plastic waste is still generated in huge quantities. Today we work to transform plastic marine litter, but it is important to understand that SEAQUAL INITIATIVE is not a product, a recycler or manufacturer. We are an initiative focused on creating a virtuous economy. 

We do not wish to be linked to any specific product or technology, because this would limit us. We will continue to evolve and work towards our goal of achieving a cleaner, more sustainable blue economy.

Let’s talk about SEAQUAL INITIATIVE. 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 marine litter have been retrieved from our ocean.

Can you see or measure 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 has been 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 recycled around 990 tons of post-consumer plastic so far. 

How do the fishermen benefit from participating?

In Europe, it is currently not permitted to pay fishermen to collect waste. Most fishermen want to help retrieve marine litter from our ocean. What we can do to support them, is to provide the infrastructure to manage and upcycle that waste, and use it to highlight the great work that they do. But also 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 fisheries by helping them to show their value and importance to society. Nowadays, fishermen have a hard time surviving. In many parts of the world, they now have to compete with multi billion dollar tourism and hospitality industry. It is important that we understand the value that they bring to their livelihood. Some fisheries conduct studies to find out where the waste comes from, how it gets into the sea, how it is moving through the water, and what we can learn from that. Through our collaborations with them, 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 made with Upcycled Marine Plastic by SEAQUAL. We are working with over 600 companies from 46 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 great opportunity to collaborate with Jack Wolfskin as a leading global outdoor brand. For the last three years, Jack Wolfskin has been committed to raising awareness of the issue of plastic pollution and inspiring consumers with their fantastic sustainable products made from SEAQUAL ® YARN. Now, the whole SEAQUAL INITIATIVE community must come together with an even greater sense of commitment. Only as an actively participating community will we realize our full potential to do good within the Blue Economy.

What else are you expecting from collaborating companies and the government in order to help fight marine pollution?

Every company needs to commit to the ‘Five Rs’ (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair and Recycle) and make them part of their DNA. When designing a product, manufacturers should be thinking 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, like they did when the EU reached an agreement to ban some single-use plastic. They also need to support local projects, and implement better waste management programs, and recycling facilities in some areas.

What can people like you and me do?

We should all Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair and Recycle. It is something that we can all do. Everyone should also be aware of their power to demand change from brands. We, as individuals, need to drive the market by giving our preference to brands that are really committed to the environment. 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. And of course you can join an follow us @seaqual.initiative on social media, in order to help us to create a big wave towards a waste free environment.

© iStock.com/Placebo365

Has working at SEAQUAL INITIATIVE 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 INITIATIVE 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 INITIATIVE 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 have also changed my travel habits. We have to travel for work sometimes, but we avoid it we can meet digitally. We now consider all these things more carefully. 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