In this feature we talk to Pete Ceglinski, co-founder of the Seabin Project, on the vision to create a clean, healthy ocean environment by spreading a relatively simple and necessary idea. We hear an update on the project and get recommendations for other DIYers out there, before getting a look at the visionaries themselves, their ‘no asshole policy’ and their journey to get out everyday and fight for a world free of ocean waste.
It’s almost too often that we encounter a piece of plastic on our way out for a surf. Either on the beach or out in the water, you’re almost guaranteed to witness the effects of pollution no matter where you go. Only a few weeks ago, world-leading scientists met in Cape Town, South Africa to discuss whether to accept that the world has moved into a new age called the Anthropocene (Anthropo- meaning human, -cene meaning age). The evidence for our new geological epoch is rather clear, they argue, as there is almost nowhere on the planet that you can go without detecting the human footprint.
For two Australian surfers, this became all too clear when on a sailing trip to Hawaii. Witnessing the shocking amount of garbage in the Pacific (see the pacific trash vortex) inspired them to design a simple yet effective solution to clean up ocean waste, starting small, one marina at a time.
|Korduroy:||What was your inspiration for the Seabin Project?|
|Pete Ceglinski:||Just a bit of background on it, I’m not the inventor. The inventor is my business partner Andrew Turton. His inspiration to start this off was being in Los Angeles getting a yacht ready to race to Hawaii and he just kept seeing all the litter and trash floating around, so he started to think, if you have a rubbish bin on the land, why can’t you have a rubbish bin in the water? And he started to make the idea happen. Literally, he put a trashcan in the water and put a pump on and started working. It was really ugly but it that’s how it started and he was stoked.
Then I met him about 4 or 5 years ago. I used to be a product designer, specialized in plastic injected molded products. Most of it was just crap – I was designing toasters, kettles and just crap that people replaced every year. So I quit that and was doing boat building as well and when I met him, I didn’t know about the Seabin idea. He had it for a while but kept it to himself because he wasn’t quite sure how to go forward and reached to a point where he didn’t know the next steps. When he told me, it sounded like a project where we can really put back into the environment, do something good, something really cool. You know you’re still out on the water, still have a bit of travel, and you’re creating a good for the environment. So we got stuck into it and I’ve been helping to create the business, crowd-funding and everything. It’s the two of us: he’s the inventor and co-founder, and I’m co-founder and managing director. So the inspiration is really just not swimming in shit, or surfing in crap.
|KTV:||It’s definitely not ideal that we live in a world where, pretty much no matter where you go, you have a need for Seabins. But we love your overall vision of eventually having pollution free oceans with no more need for the product. It’s one that sends message of truly caring about the impact of the project from a social and environmental perspective rather than just the commercial aspect. Did you have any reservations about that from the outset? It doesn’t seem it would be something that would go down well with shareholders or raising funds using traditional methods, so was the ability to crowd-fund an important driver in your success?|
|PC:||Yea it’s a very special thing – we got some really weird comments from some others in the industry about our vision and how we’re marketing ourselves. Essentially we’re a dirty, disgusting rubbish bin company. We’ve taken our blinkers off and we can see the bigger picture, which is beautiful, clean water and healthy lifestyles. And this is what we should be focusing on. We really want to inspire and create positivity.
Going back to the question, it’s quite strange for a company to say that but there are companies out there that are leading by example, such as Patagonia. This is a business that we would really like to use as a mentor with their mentalities and success in what they’re doing. And we didn’t want to split up our company – we’ve had a lot of offers for investment from people like Shell and some other big oil companies and to us, it was like thanks but no thanks. Essentially they want to use us to make themselves look good, and we end up looking like dicks at the end of it.
|KTV:||Good on you guys, stand by your principles.|
|PC:||Yea one of the first things we spoke about is a ‘no asshole policy’. So when we did our crowd-funding, that was how we decided we would fund ourselves – we worked so hard to get those prototypes sorted out so we actually just wanted to give it a go ourselves. So we did the crowd-funding that went for 4.5 weeks and for 3 weeks of it I’d spend like 20hrs per day on average on my phone, computer and iPad smashing out emails, messages, calling people like Greenpeace and other environmental groups. And surprisingly we never got many replies but when we finally got a couple, it was I’m sorry but it’s a conflict of interest with what we’re doing so we can’t help you and all we ever asked for was a ‘like’ or a ‘share’ on Facebook; just to raise awareness on what we were doing and not asking anyone for money. For me it was crazy that you have these environmental groups all screaming about finding a solution to this problem, and then there we were like Oy, we’ve got the solution but they found it a conflict of interest and gave us a sorry, good luck. Right, well we have this amazing product and one day we’re going to have a bit of leverage and power so if anybody asks us for help we should help them because it’s a global problem and we’re all in this together. Its not like we’re going to reject helping someone because they are trying to clean the ocean as well. And that’s how the ‘no asshole policy’ evolved.|
|KTV:||Sounds like a great policy – it seems like the trend with positive impact companies is moving toward actually caring about helping others, caring about the greater good, company culture and helping people and planet rather than merely driving self-interest.|
|PC:||Exactly. I mean we are a business, we need to make money to make a living, but with this, we want to put it back into the business, make better Seabins and put into our educational program with our marine scientist now working for us.|
|KTV:||Quite often you hear of people having good ideas that intend to make a difference, but rarely going out and pursuing it or seeing it through, perhaps due to lack of time, perceived risk, or thinking others will do it instead. What would you tell other DIYers out there who may want to follow a similar path and build a positive impact product but are hesitant to take the leap?|
|PC:||Do it. Just do it. But don’t just jump in the deep end. I knew what I wanted to do; I didn’t have a full plan but I knew that I needed to have something to support myself. So I quit my job, me and Andrew had this idea for a couple of years and had been saying we’ll do it, we’ll do it, but we never did and we’d do something after work in the shed but we never got serious and I was daydreaming about surfing and doing the Seabin and having a flexible lifestyle. But one day I was like you know, if I’m going to do this, I need to save my money and start putting little steps into place and so for a year I saved my money, quit my job and set a target for us that we had to be at the Amsterdam World Trade Show for the maritime industry and then set another milestone which was the crowd-funding campaign. I knew that if we made the crowd-funding, we were obligated to fulfill everything. So using the money I saved, I got a factory, set it all up, bought the machines, had our own tools, and we just went for it. So my recommendation is follow your dreams but put little steps into place because if you just quit your job and follow your dream you’ll likely have to get a job again the next month because you’re out of money.|
|KTV:||Right on, and there’s always that question of is it worth taking the risk, is it worth taking that leap?|
|PC:||It’s definitely a big risk. There’s a lot of stuff that we didn’t know how to do but we understood our weaknesses and covered them. For example, we didn’t know how to do business. But I had an ex-client of mine from 15 years ago who was a chartered accountant slash business consultant for some big companies in Australia. I called him, told him what we were up to and asked him if he’d like to join us and he said yes. So we’re understanding and covering our weaknesses.|
|KTV:||That’s good advice. Recognize your weaknesses and address them early on. And ask for help where needed. So what skills did you and Andrew have in your previous work that translated well to seeing the project through the design and prototype phases?|
|PC:||Andrew is a qualified shipwright, he’s been building boats for as long as he could hold a job. He’s also a professional sailor so he’s had hands-on skills that are second to none. He plays a big role in building the prototypes as well as coming up with developments. Working as a boat-builder, you’re not just fiber glassing, you’re doing all sorts of things with the motor, hydraulics, lines, systems and he’s used all his life skills and job skills and essentially just put it into the Seabin.
For myself, my first job was product design so I have 3D modeling programs like autoCAD on my computer. I also have CAD/CAM programs because I used to operate CNC machines as well. So I would design the product, design the mold, and then cut the molds. I also have 10 years of boat building experience at the same level as Andrew, doing America’s Cup and other ocean races. But in my job as a product designer, we learned Photoshop and Illustrator, compositions and other bits and pieces. Because we don’t have a big budget, I did all the logos and videos, etc. It’s really satisfying to be able to put all our skills together and have this amazing project.
|KTV:||What’s the setup like over at your factory in Mallorca?|
|PC:||Our setup is pretty cool. We’re not a big professional outfit, you know there’s surfboards and crap throughout the factory and whenever the surf is good we take off and come back and work into the evening if we have to. It’s a startup and we’re all pretty normal people. We have a marine scientist working for us full-time because when we did this we understood Seabin is not a solution, it’s just part of a solution. We had roughly 350 million people watch our video, which is just insane, and at the moment we have 100,000 followers so we realized we are in a really good position to have strong leverage on the project and what we wanted to do is set up an educational program. The idea is to have kids or sports clubs coming down to the marina and interact with the Seabin. To do this, there was always the question of fish getting caught in the Seabin. In real life it doesn’t happen but there is a psychological factor where people who might not understand the water so much think the worst. We get hate mail saying we are going to suck in all the plankton and kill all the whales. Its heavy, I mean I’ve sent the last 10 years working with yachts and every day we’re in a marina – there’s hardly any fish or marine life in there. When you go out sailing you see the whales and all that, not in the marina. So this is kind of what we had to counteract and we needed someone with substance to help us. What we didn’t want to do is create a product with a negative impact on the environment.|
|KTV:||General updates on the project? It looks like you guys are going to scale with your manufacturing and supply?|
|PC:||Yea, we just pulled the Seabin out of the water two days ago, cutting it up again to make it smaller and more effective, less materials, because everything in this project we would like to be as best as we can. It’s not perfect and it will never be, but we’ve switched from a 220V electric pump to a 24V pump, and now we have all these different energy options. The first prototype we made out of stainless steel with metal fabrication and we’ve set up an industrial partnership with a company who specialize in rotational molded products so we can use polyethylene plastic and although its plastic, we can get like a 60-90% recycled material content in our products. So this is one of our goals at the moment is to test just exactly how much recycled material we can get into building the Seabin, with a view to using our own plastics in the future – either to use a percentage for building new Seabins or to use the rest of the plastics in some kind of circular economy, say for example Patagonia use recycled plastics in their t-shirts. Hurley, O’neill, and a few others have approached us to use our caught plastics as well.
Part of that vision is to not have any of the stuff we are catching going into landfill or being incinerated, but essentially to reuse this valuable resource that we’re not at the moment. There’s a few companies, one called Parley For The Oceans who work with beach cleanup groups and governments to take recycled plastics, clean them and reprocess them in order to send back out to industry to use. So we’re working to be a part of that as well. You have the beach and street cleanups but you don’t have anyone in the water, so we’re hoping to complete that triangle essentially.
|KTV:||It sounds like you guys are tackling critical issues of sustainability throughout the supply chain. Can you elaborate on your mission to ensure a low-carbon footprint and a closed, circular economic model?|
|PC:||We thought about this at the very start and were fortunate to meet the company Poralu Marine at the marine trade show. When I spoke to them, they told me they had factories on three different continents with a worldwide distribution network. For us to cut out logistics (we don’t want to ship the product one at a time to the US or any other place from Europe) is huge – they’ve got a factory in Canada which covers North America. So we can send the files over and they can start a production line; it’s great, it cuts out logistics, and we don’t want to have any packaging. If we do have packaging we’d just used a recycled cardboard box or something. We also have a 3D printer and the plastics that we use with the printer is PLA which is a plant-based plastics made from cornstarch or sugarcane starch. Its amazing; only problem is if you leave it in a hot car it’ll probably change shape and melt because it doesn’t have a high-temperature range which is probably why it’s not such a commercial product.
So yea the biggest thing for us was to have the industrial partnership with a manufacturer who can cut out logistics and in terms of sustainability, they have set up their whole factory to be as sustainable and streamlined as possible. It’s a very beneficial partnership for the both of us.
|KTV:||We hear a lot about the project and the product but not so much about the makers. Can you give us a snapshot of a day in the life of Pete & Andrew?|
|PC:||Andrew has a little apartment next to the marina so him and his dog go for a swim in the morning, then come into the factory and work on whatever we have on with the prototype and the tweaking/development of that. If there’s a bit of wind, he’ll take off and do a couple hours of sailing, then a bit of work in the afternoon.
For me, we have a really cool factory – not a big one but also not a small. It’s setup pretty well and I live here with my partner. We’ll wake up in the morning, check emails, social media, do the general run-through, work on the 3D modeling, and do the managerial things throughout the day, like meet the industrial partners, check that all employees are on track with projects, etc. Everyday I get about 300 emails so my day doesn’t finish until about midnight. If there are waves, Ill try and sneak off and go for a surf. But if I do that, I still have my phone and I’m still working. On the weekends we try and have a day or two off and head up north. If there are no waves, we’ll go freediving. A lot of the photos you’ll see on Facebook/Instagram are from us because we don’t have the money to pay for stock footage or anything. When there are waves we’ll take a big industrial rubbish bag to the beach, do a beach cleanup as we go. Some of the surfers will help and friends will join us. So it’s not boring, that’s for sure.
|KTV:||What would you say your ideal day would consist of?|
|PC:||Ideal day: getup, do some yoga in the morning (getting a bit stiff), couple hours of work, go for a surf, work for the afternoon, then watch the sunset with my partner.|
|KTV:||What does the term sustainability mean to you?|
|PC:||Sustainability is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. Its a lot of things and it starts with consuming less, buying better products, products that last, and trying to find products with a background of being responsible as well. It can be anything from an organic avocado not in a wrapper and grown responsibly by not having minimum-wage labor. And sustainability is using our resources properly. For example, we have a hessian fiber catch-bag; a sustainable material but when we
go to the supplier we have to know if they’re being sustainable in producing that product or if they’re just slash-and-burn; do they have a renewable source, are they planting things again, etc.
|KTV:||Do you and Andrew try to implement the principles of sustainability and low-impact living at home?|
|PC:||Yea even just from trying to keep a healthy lifestyle, essentially you start to create sustainable practices. I think as you get older and wiser, you become aware of a lot of things. For example, when I mentioned buying organic – once you start looking after yourself and your health you really start to change your whole life and your outlook on a lot of things. I don’t buy a lot of products anymore because I don’t need them. With food, we try and buy the best food we can with the least processing and packaging. Same thing with clothes – we have a lot of them we can reuse, you don’t need to buy a t-shirt or a pair of socks every week. And the same goes for surfboards and leashes.
We’re getting really better with our recycling as well because where we live you can see although they try to do really well, they’re missing a few things to be really efficient. So we’re aware of that and that in turn effects us in trying to be more responsible with our own recycling and sustainability efforts.
|KTV:||Yea living in California it can be pretty wild to see the amount of stuff people have. But after a while you realize less is more, you know?|
|PC:||Yea exactly, I was living in San Francisco for a year and I borrowed a Cadillac – coolest car I’ve ever had, drove it from SF to Mexico and back, from SF over to Miami and it only cost me $1000. It was a 5.1 liter, never broke down but a lot of people asked me why I only had a 5.1L thinking it was too small and I would say in Australia, 3.5L is one of the biggest sizes you can get, and so in this case clearly less is more. I guess from our travels around the world, seeing other cultures and practices, it opens your eyes a lot more and we are very fortunate for that.|
|KTV:||Right on. Where in San Francisco were you?|
|PC:||Over in Alameda working for the America’s Cup. Every weekend I’d shoot off to down to Santa Cruz, surf Steamers or Pleasure Point or a couple reefs down the highway there.|
|KTV:||Very cool. If you were stuck on a remote island that may or may not have an epic surf break, would you choose a surfboard or a fishing pole as your one luxury item?|
|PC:||Surfboard for sure. I don’t care if its 2ft, an onshore, or 6ft and offshore, you know? You get the same amount of stoke. And if it’s a luxury item and a non-essential, I’d have other food to eat.|
|KTV:||Well-reasoned! So what are your plans for the future? One of the tracks we’ve been following is the 5-Gyres Project – is it far-fetched to ask if the Seabin will ever be able to make it to larger-scale ocean waste problems like the great pacific garbage patch? Have you guys had any thoughts about that?|
|PC:||Yea, we’ve got all sorts of ideas. When we first started this, we saw the Seabin as a stepping-stone to bigger things. What I can see is maybe in 10 years is working with BP or Shell Oil to get one of their oil platforms and reinvent it to a great big Seabin with scientists and researchers working on there, self-sufficient and out there in the garbage patches cleaning up. These oil platforms are designed to withstand massive storms and essentially these big corporations are screwing the Earth so it would be good to see them turn around and put something back in. This is one of the visions we’d like to implement.|
|KTV:||Sounds like a great idea. And it looks like some of the French big oil companies like Total are really serious about making the shift to true sustainable development.|
|PC:||Yea its like dinosaurs, they’re going to be extinct soon. The world is changing, and our culture is changing; we’re getting smarter and I think we can say thank you to the internet and social media for making people more aware of the damage we’ve done to the Earth. And now we’re learning from our problems. Now we have to change our way and it’s a very big transitional period that we’re in. It’s taken a long time to get this far and it’ll take a long time before we’re really on the right track, but I’m an optimist.|
|KTV:||Yea I agree. A lot has changed just in the past 10 or 15 years. Governments are slow to move but at least they have commitments now.|
|PC:||Yea small steps, baby steps; get it in the bag then the rest of it starts falling into place.|
|KTV:||That’s right. Anything else you’d like to add for the Korduroy viewers?|
|PC:||Just this one major thing that we always sort of stress: we want to make people feel good about themselves. We don’t want to use propaganda or shock images of turtles with a plastic bag stuffed down their throat, you know just really bad and disgusting things, to get people behind this. We feel that to really make a difference and to really make a big impact is when you make someone feel positive about themselves. So we’d like to show people that there is still a lot of magic in our oceans and it’s been overlooked with all this doom and gloom. I’d rather make people feel good, show them images of beautiful beaches and palm trees and when they see a bit of rubbish they’ll pick it up because they’d like to see beautiful beaches as well.
For us it’s a really big thing to inspire with creativity and positivity. Even though at the end of the day we’re a dirty rubbish bin just collecting trash, the bigger picture is the less trash in the water, the cleaner it’ll be.
This last point really hit home for us: it’s not really about stopping the world we don’t want, but rather, it’s about how do we create the world we do want? Too often we are fed doom and gloom scenarios of a dystopian future – a risky approach to getting people to act, given that people tend to have a finite pool of worry. In order to inspire change for the better, perhaps we need to shift our mentality to looking at the future in a positive light, with projects such as the Seabin taking a small step toward what a Good Anthropocene could look like. To us, that’s a future worth fighting for.
If you like what you hear, jump on Facebook, Twitter (Seabin_project) or Instagram (@seabin_project) and give them a shout. And if you want to get involved, feel free to get in touch with Pete – they’ve got a global ambassadors program educating communities all over the world on sustainable ocean management.
Interview by Shayan Barmand. Shayan is an Australian based expert in sustainable road design and global climate policy.