The rising tide of plastic pollution is being declared a planetary crisis by scientists and environmentalists. How can we solve it?


Working with government, luxury resorts, fisheries, fishing vessels and schools across the Maldives, Parley is intercepting the flow of plastic and recrafting it into an array of thought-provoking clothes.

The rising tide of plastic pollution is being declared a planetary crisis by scientists and environmentalists. Aquatic life is being wiped out at an alarming rate and in the words of marine conservationist Captain Paul Watson, ‘If the oceans die, we all die.’

In the face of this mass marine destruction, design-led activism and eco innovation is seeding hope, with creative collaborations springing up across the globe.  In Spain, Ecoalf continues to pioneer the trend in upcycling (a term for repurposing recycled waste into something of more value), creating premium clothing, including waterproof jackets and rucksacks, from plastic tidal trash. With fans including Javier Bardem and collaborators including Apple, Barneys New York and Will.i.am’s Ekocycle, founder Javier Goyeneche’s plan is to expand his Upcycling the Oceans (UTO) initiative along the Spanish coastline and beyond, with the model already being replicated in Thailand.

One metre of Ecoalf fabric can be generated from 235g of fishing nets – a culprit that accounts for 10% of all ocean plastic pollution according to the United Nations, and which entangles and often strangles aquatic creatures when left in the waters. In Chile, this nasty netting has been recycled into skateboards by Bureo, a company started by surfer friends and supported by Patagonia, the godfathers of nylon upcycling. Barcelona-based Sea2sea is repurposing reclaimed netting into trendsetting glasses, while in Hawaii, redundant fishing gear is being converted into electricity by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and partners. Similarly, Parley for the Oceans has utilised this discarded material in the creation of a new technical fibre named Econyl®, which forms the basis of the Parley x Adidas swimwear line.

Working with government, luxury resorts, fisheries, fishing vessels and schools across the Maldives, Parley is intercepting the flow of plastic and recrafting it into an array of thought-provoking clothes. Certified Parley supply chain partners clean, sort and condense collected fragments before mixing begins with other recycled materials in the making of Parley Ocean Plastic™. Since launching the world’s first oceanic plastic denim collection with Pharrell Williams’ Bionic Yarn and G-Star RAW in 2015, Parley has won admiration from the luxury market, with Stella McCartney now proudly on board.

In an ongoing alliance with Adidas, what started with a limited run of marine plastic performance shoes, has swelled into mass production, with over a million pairs of the kindly ‘knitted’ trainers sold in 2017. Further Adidas x Parley creations include football jerseys for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, proving that high quality and high-tech requires intelligent design thinking not virgin natural resources.


While not a panacea, upcycling is helping to change perceptions of plastic; from convenient and cheap, to toxic and costly (with the ultimate cost being loss of life). Not only that, but it has also been turned into an art form by London-based Studio Swine. For their Sea Chair, the disruptive design duo used salvaged agricultural machinery and refurbished it for the use of harvesting ocean plastic, which they then recrafted and repurposed out at sea. For Gyrecraft, they undertook a 1,000-mile nautical journey from the Azores to the Canaries, extracting rubbish which they melted down with their solar-powered Solar Extruder, before repurposing it into objets d’art.

Technological advancements are fuelling the transformation of the sea’s debris from disposable to desirable. At the cutting edge, fellow Londoners Pentatonic – a start-up that received £4.3 million in funding – has adapted an injection-moulding process to utilise waste materials in thought-provoking products, and demand is growing fast.

Brodie Neill’s furniture pieces are born from his sighting of plastic pollution on his local beach. He began salvaging plastic along coastlines – from his native Tasmania to Hawaii and humble Cornwall – and using the remnants to develop a material he calls ‘ocean terrazzo’. Inspired by the works of fellow marine conservation activist, the oceanographer Dr Erik van Sebille, Neill’s creations ‘return plastic to the economy and free it from the environment’.

Economic incentive has proved the key to success in Haiti, where the Plastic Bank social enterprise exchanges beach junk collected by impoverished locals for a life-enriching currency; thus restoring coastlines to their unpolluted glory and simultaneously empowering the community. Founder David Katz urges us to ‘turn off the tap’ to stop the flow of plastic into the sea.

These success stories demonstrate clever design and circular business, two fundamental requirements promoted by Dame Ellen MacArthur and her eponymous foundation in 2009. The third vital ingredient in winning the battle against ocean plastic waste, according to MacArthur, is to find and fund sustainable plastic alternatives.

Biopolymers created from algae could help rid us of our fossil-fuelled addiction, as could hemp, which is finally being taken seriously as a superior substitute. Examples set by the likes of the Florida-based SaltWater Brewery, a company that has used by-products from the beer-making process to build edible six-pack rings – replacing something that was killing animals into something that feeds them – and the discovery of a ‘plastic-eating’ caterpillar by researchers at Cambridge University, remind us that, if observed closely enough, nature reveals all the answers we need.

Meanwhile, ocean plastic pollution could present one of the greatest business opportunities of all time; a winning investment in rescuing the ocean will mean saving the human race from self-inflicted extinction.


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