Turning trash into treasure may sound like a cliché, but since 2015 that is literally what the Seaqual Initiative has been doing.
The figures are overwhelming. Every year, 12 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans. As of 2020, there were 4.6 billion tons of plastic in landfills and our environment. Every minute, one million plastic bottles are sold. This year alone, 400 million tons of plastic will be produced. Only 9% of this will be recycled.
On the surface, the problem seems insurmountable. But for Mark Hartnell, the Director of Textiles at the Seaqual Initiative, solutions do exist. “Marine pollution is a global issue with no borders,” he explains from his home office overlooking the sea just outside Lagos. “In order to solve this problem, we need huge collaboration with global markets. That starts at the local level.”
Founded in 2015 by three Spanish companies who wanted to use recycled plastic in their garments, Seaqual started from a desire to make marine plastic commercially viable. These companies wanted to make yarn from damaged plastic and then manufacture ‘recycled clothing’. The process proved challenging, and they were severely understaffed.
As soon as Hartnell heard about Seaqual, he knew he could find a solution. “I’ve always had a deep passion and love for the ocean, and I’m a textile engineer. For the last 25 years, I’ve been engineering fabrics to meet certain requirements – everything from anti-microbial to self-drying,” he says. “I’m one of those people who never go to the beach without picking up some plastic and I know how to find creative solutions for materials and get them to market successfully. This was a job made for me.”
Hartnell joined Seaqual in the summer of 2018. Since then, it has evolved from a small project with one full-time employee and 12 companies to a fast-growing, global initiative with over 1,000 companies, numerous projects and a team of international experts around the world.
“Seaqual is not a company,” explains Hartnell. Rather, this is a global initiative made up of NGOs, large international brands (IKEA, Fiat, Bluebuck, Burlington and many others), waste management companies, manufacturers, fishermen, environmental groups, politicians and individuals around the world who share a desire to help clean up the oceans. Seaqual connects various entities on a local level, serving as a catalyst for awareness, education and change.
Hartnell points out the need for better education. One common misconception is that fishermen are largely responsible for the plastic waste in the oceans. In reality, 80% of the plastic that ends up in the oceans comes from landfills and rivers, not the fishermen. “We are working with local fishermen who often have a great love for the sea and have lived from it for generations,” explains Hartnell. “So many of them are collaborating to help, yet people often blame them unfairly for the problem.”
One of the biggest issues arises in locations near the sea that experience seasonal tourism and a massive influx of waste for several months of the year. Often, waste management companies in those areas are designed to handle the amount of waste produced by the local inhabitants. When a specific season or time of the year brings hordes of tourists, the sudden increase in waste exceeds the capacity of local waste management plants. This creates massive problems for the nearby seashore, especially if unexpected storms occur that sweep trash from landfills and rivers into the water.
For Portugal, which thrives on seasonal tourism close to the beach, this is a large problem. “I can’t name any specific companies yet, but we are launching a big collaboration between waste management companies, recycling plants, and collectors along a large part of the Portuguese coast very soon.” This new project will run from Porto in the north all the way to Lagos in the south.
According to Hartnell, one of the questions individuals ask him the most is “what can I do to help?” Aside from participating in local beach clean-ups and recycling, individuals have a huge potential to help. Every decision counts. Your purchasing power – what you buy, how you buy it and from whom – makes a huge difference. “If you don’t want to see plastic bags in the ocean, don’t use them,” advises Hartnell. “Educate yourself about the type of fish you’re buying. Is it artisan? Is it a type that is overfished? Make informed choices. People think what they do makes no difference, but they’re wrong. Everything makes a difference. We are in this together. It’s our ocean, and it will only change if we all work as a team.”
To get involved or find out how you can help, visit www.seaqual.org