Rethinking the waste: ocean plastic for surfboards

I met Luise Wunner in the beginning of 2019 in the business school I used to work, where she was teaching a BA Entrepreneurship class. I was happy to meet a business lecturer who integrates sustainability in her professional life and even happier to hear the story of her and her partner’s startup in Australia “Five Oceans”, which is tackling plastic pollution.

We talked back in July and though quite some time has passed since then, I am very happy to finally share this story with you. Enjoy it.

Luise, tell me how did Five Oceans start?

Five Oceans started in 2014 as an idea to turn ocean waste into something useful. My partner Felix and I decided to make surfboard fins out of recycled plastic waste from Indonesia. We thought it was a good idea, because surfers care about the ocean, and back then the knowledge of the plastic oceans was starting to spread. We were one of the first projects of such kind which did not make it easier. There was no one we could really ask how to make something like that happen. However, we wanted to just give it a go and we could always stop if it was not working. “We go as far as we can” was our mantra. And somehow everything worked out. It was not easy, but it always worked out.

I figured Bali was one of the worst places with ocean pollution. We started by going on research trips to Bali – I basically rocked up at one of the biggest recycling and waste management providers in Bali and said, “We have this idea”. One woman there helped us to connect all the dots. She explained where the waste was collected, where it was going to be separated and sorted, and then processed into pallets which you could later use to make anything out of plastic.

To finance the project, we did a documentary and a crowdfunding campaign in 2015, which was successful. It was the most exciting time we can remember! And I think in one year’s time we already sold fins to the shops.

How did such business idea come to your minds?

My partner was working on a fin concept and I was researching more and more about ocean pollution. At the time no one was aware of it, people were just talking “Oh yeah, I heard there are five islands of trash in the ocean”, but people could not picture what it meant. One of the main intensions of our project was to raise awareness, to motivate people to participate in beach cleanups and other initiatives.

So much has happened in this field since then – now there are so many active NGOs and good products. However, there is also a lot of greenwashing. Some companies are trying to market the products in a debatable way.

For us it was always very important to be transparent in what we do. We always published everything, like the percentage of the waste material that we could use. Our product could also ideally use more raw waste, but it is a start, and we also must think about making a durable product.

Photo by Five Oceans

Do you remember the moment when you realized the magnitude of the plastic pollution problem?

I think it was an early documentary by Captain Charles Moore. Also, the scientific articles about the gyres and about how much plastic is leaking into nature. That is really when I started looking at my own behaviour quite differently and started to avoid plastic wherever I could. It has changed our lives completely as well as the lives of our friends and families – no one would ever take the plastic bag and things like that anymore.

On the other hand, even though we have more knowledge, I think we don’t have more answers. How can you actually be a very good consumer? You don’t consume anything? Or do you buy second hand? Do you choose plastic-free or recycled things? For example, there are a lot of brands that are doing bikinis and swimwear from recycled nylon. But when I think further about microfibers that are leaking during the washing, I ask myself is it good to do this? I find that it is a difficult question – what is really the right thing to do.

I got excited about unsexy topics like waste management and waste infrastructure. I find this is an answer that helps, especially when you look at the countries like Indonesia. People blame the locals, that they throw their trash in the river. I think the problem lies within the infrastructure instead of it being an educational or a cultural problem. That’s where governments and policy makers have to step in. Also, a smart thing that is needed for the future is to make waste a viable business. We have to see waste as a resource, and we can build jobs around it.

Do you then see recycling as an ultimate solution?

I think there is never really one right thing to do. But it is a big thing. Often, we need plastic. If when transporting drinking water to the places where the local water is not safe to drink, we opted for glass containers, the carbon footprint would be much worse. Plastic has many good properties. The problem is that we started thinking about the end of life of the product only recently.

I think recycling is great, but it’s not the only answer. It is also important to avoid waste, to produce smarter products, also to shift to not owning things anymore, but still having access to them. One of such recent examples is carsharing.

Also, people will not do things that are not at their benefit or that are not easy. Only a few would go an extra mile to avoid plastic. For example, in Munich in the city centre we don’t have recycling bins; you have to go to certain stations to find them. Of course, I do it – I’m a waste maniac. I sort everything and I have a compost box and so on. But generally, it is too hard – so we need to change it! The answer is not in running campaigns, but changing the system, changing the design, making it easy. It is even better if it is also sexy and cool, then it will work.  Cities and municipalities can do a lot to provide the needed infrastructure.

You were also working with raising awareness among the school kids back in Australia, how was that experience?

We did a couple of educational projects with the high school kids. We did a beach cleanup. You would think, in Australia the beaches look so beautiful and nice, but we found so much trash! We sorted the trash and talked with the kids about what they had found and what they thought was a good solution. We later visited our factory and built a couple of fin keys together.  It was such an amazing project!

I also did school projects in Indonesia, including a beach cleanup. For school kids there it was really the first time someone told them that waste can be something useful.  

Photo by Five Oceans

What were the most common items you found during beach cleanups?

Plastic bottles! Lots of packaging of food and cosmetics, plastic bags, lighters, flip-flops…everything!

Are there some plastic products that are more difficult to recycle than others?

Thin plastic film is especially difficult to recycle, and it is often not recycled at all. For example, you can make a plastic bag from a recycled material, but then recycling it again is a very complicated process. 

How do you feel about the future, are you more optimistic or pessimistic?

I am a very optimistic person, so it is hard for me to be pessimistic. I think things will change and people will get smarter, but I think it will take time. We are in such an early stage. We need to put systems in place.

I also hope there will be more businesses which understand that integrating sustainability makes sense. Five Oceans is a business and I wanted to keep it like this. Just to prove that it works. We did not get really rich out of it, but it is still there.

It is also important that consumers have a good experience with sustainable products. If it’s too hard and you cannot trust it, you turn around and keep on doing what you always did.

What would you advise to someone who wants to start a sustainable business?

I think you don’t always have to start something from scratch. You can find people who are already doing something, reach out to them and say you want to get involved. I think the more people get together, the better it is, instead of making just tiny grassroots organizations.

You can also start from yourself. Look at your routines – how you recycle your waste and how you can avoid gathering waste. Just being a bit more aware about everything is the way to start.