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Holiday Savings: These Plastic Gifts Are Good for the Ocean

A growing number of companies are intercepting plastic before it enters the ocean and harms marine life, turning trash into everything from sunglasses and surfboard fins to swimwear and skateboards.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
An endangered Hawaiian monk seal being rescued after becoming trapped in fishing nets.NOAA

For that hard-to-shop-for ocean-lover on your holiday list, may we recommend a gift of garbage? Recycled marine trash, to be exact.

To help stem the tide of 8 million metric tons of plastic that flows into the sea each year, a nascent blue economy is developing around products made out of recycled plastic bottles, nylon fishing nets and other ocean-bound trash that threatens the health of wildlife and people.

It’s no surprise that many of these products are designed with the coastal crowd in mind – surf bags, surfboard fins, swimwear, sunglasses, skateboards. We won’t, of course, surf our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. But like the Lonely Whale’s campaign against plastic straws, the name of the game is to raise consciousness about plastic use and change personal behavior.

A surfboard fin made from recycled fishing nets. (Bureo)

Such efforts certainly are raising corporate consciousness – witness the multinational corporations such as PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Unilever that felt compelled to appear at the high-level Our Ocean conference in Malta in October to make commitments to reduce their plastic use. And last Tuesday, Dell, General Motors and other corporations announced the NextWave initiative to create an industrial supply chain to intercept ocean-bound plastic and turn it into products like computer packaging trays, automotive parts, furniture and bicycle parts. The goal: transform artisanal efforts to recycle ocean-bound plastic into a mass-market phenomenon.

Alas, computer packaging and car parts, recycled or not, don’t make the best stocking stuffers. Here, then, are our holiday ocean plastic picks.

Deep Blue Bag

Back in 2012, I wrote a story about a two-person California nonprofit called Sustainable Surf that had set out to green up the notoriously recalcitrant surf industry by getting manufacturers to ditch the toxic materials long used to make surfboards for ecologically benign alternatives. It seemed a quixotic quest at best. But five years later, tens of thousands of “Ecoboards” have been made and surf champions such as Kelly Slater, John John Florence and Lakey Peterson ride them in competitions.

Sustainable Surf founders Michael Stewart and Kevin Whilden are now campaigning to green up surfers – and everyone else’s – lifestyle through their Deep Blue Life initiative. Their latest project: the Deep Blue Bag, a backpack made of locally collected “upcycled” synthetic boat and kiteboard sails, wetsuits and climbing ropes collected from Yosemite Valley. Created by industrial designer (and surfer) Yves Behar and Mafia Bags of San Francisco, the “Born by the Bay” bag features a waterproof compartment to store wet wetsuits and swimsuits and another one that keeps laptops dry. A pocket can be used to stash valuables out of sight. One unique feature: a bottle holder, made from recycled drysuit material, is designed to keep drinks from falling out, even when the bag is turned upside down.

The Deep Blue Bag. (Kickstarter)

“It’s not just a bag, it’s really a movement you’re joining,” Stewart says in a promotional video for the Deep Blue Bag, which is available on Kickstarter. “By choosing products like this, you’re voting with your wallet and your heart for more sustainable lifestyle choices.”

Profits will support Sustainable Surf’s Waste to Waves program, which collects EPS foam (aka Styrofoam) packaging material that would otherwise end up in landfills or the ocean and recycles them into “blanks” used to build surfboards. (Petroleum-based wetsuits are collected and transformed into yoga mats.)

Having spent a few days with the Deep Blue Bag on a surf trip, I can report that it lives up to its billing and passes the cool test (my teenage son now wants one). (Disclosure: I occasionally surf with Stewart and Whilden and I ride Ecoboard-certified surfboards.)

From Sea to Sunglasses

Bureo, a company started by three surfers (and mechanical engineers), pays Chilean fishers for old fishing nets that are often abandoned in the ocean. The nets are recycled into plastic pellets that are made into skateboards, sunglasses and surfboard fins. (Bureo is also a member of the NextWave consortium.)

Sea2See sunglasses made from recycled fishing nets.

European startup Sea2See sells sunglasses handmade in Italy from recycled ocean trash. The company set up collection bins in Spanish ports where fishers can deposit old nets and fishing lines rather than toss them overboard. “So much plastic in the sea, guys, we need to do something,” Sea2See founder Francois Van den Abeele says in a video. “So I thought about making a product that could be made of that raw material, all the plastic. A trendy product that could be seen, that anybody could buy with pride. More than a product, a statement, made by people that wear it.”

A Bureo skateboard manufactured from recycled fishing nets. (Bureo)

Swimming in Plastic

Several years ago, Italian company Aquafil Group developed a textile yarn made from recycled fishing nets that it called Econyl. Today, you can buy swimwear made from the material. Eleven-time surf champion Kelly Slater’s Outerknown sells men’s Econyl board shorts, and Adidas this month unveiled a line of Econyl women’s swimwear that it created with Parley for the Oceans.

A pair of Outerknown board shorts made from Econyl. (Outerknown)

For those who prefer to stay on land, Adidas sells a line of athletic shoes in collaboration with Parley made in part from ocean plastic.

“If you want to survive the next 20 years, you have to be sustainable,” Aquafil chief executive Giulio Bonazzi told me about the company’s corporate strategy in a 2015 interview. “It’s not enough to produce quality or beautiful products – you have to be sustainable.”

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