Photo : Giovanni Castell
“LET’S TURN OCEAN PLASTIC INTO SOMETHING FANTASTIC!” WAS THE MOTTO OF THE UNPRECEDENTED, SUCCESSFUL PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN ICONIC STREETWEAR BRAND G-STAR AND PARLEY, THE ORGANIZATION THAT FIGHTS THE PROGRESSION OF OCEAN PLASTIC WASTE WITH NEW, FORWARD-THINKING MEANS. AND THIS MOTTO PRETTY MUCH SUMS UP WHAT CYRILL GUTSCH, THE MAN BEHIND THE INITIATIVE, IS ALL ABOUT: PROTECTING OUR OCEANS FROM A SEEMINGLY INEVITABLE THREAT AND FINDING NEW WAYS TO ADDRESS THE PLASTIC WASTE PROBLEM FOR GOOD. THE VISIONARY DESIGNER-TURNED-ACTIVIST IS NOW ENGAGING A PARTNERSHIP WITH ADIDAS AND RAISES AWARENESS THROUGH THE ARTS. THE OCCASION TO TALK ECO-RESPONSIBILITY, PARTNERSHIPS AND, MOST OF ALL, THE FUTURE OF OUR OCEANS.
How did it all begin for you, your commitment for the oceans?
In June 16, 2012, I was sitting in this law firm in Frankfurt. I came because a friend of mine asked me to see Capitan Paul Watson. I already knew him from television and I expected this pirate, this tough activist guy. He came in in the small office and he was much more like a soft, Santa Klaus person. White beard, blue eyes, and extremely educated. He was in trouble then because he had just been arrested by the German government for fighting illegal whaling in the Antarctic. I’m not an activist; I was just a designer. But when I saw the whole story, I realized he is doing our job. I should do what he is doing. I thought: “I’m useless!” So there was a moment when I decided to turn my life to the oceans. Now I dedicate everything to the oceans. At that time, it was the first time that I heard that there was such a big problem as the oceans. I knew about it, but I didn’t know how bad it was. Learning that was devastating. In 2048, they say the oceans will be dead. This prevision was made in 2006; it is already nine years ago! The speed of destruction is so fast that they predict the oceans will be dead within the next fifteen years. That is something I cannot accept.
Is it mainly because of the pollution of the earth?
One thing is the pollution. Everything we put on the earth goes into the oceans at the end of the day.And on top of that there is Fukushima, the nuclear catastrophy, and there are tons of catastrophies we don’t see, like sinking boats. The oceans are a huge place where people throw their trash: nuclear waste, restricted substances, plastic… There was this belief that the oceans were something that you can’t destroy. There is also the fact that we don’t really relate to the oceans. Fishes don’t have arms, they don’t have ears. Sharks are considered bad and mean. It is a universe that most of us don’t relate to, there is a disconnection towards this world. That is what, at Parley, we saw as the first big problem. Most of the people don’t care about the oceans. They don’t love it, so they don’t care. And they don’t know them! It was the same for me, I didn’t know.
Not everyone knows there is a sea of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
It’s called the North Pacific Garbage Patch, which is caused by the North Pacific Gyre. They say it is double the size of America. There is a very high concentration of plastic waste in this area because the currents meet there and it is like a big grinder. It grinds everything down, and then it pushes everything out, and at the end all these small items of plastic come to all the islands around, and the animals eat them. We found dead birds on the beach with their stomach full of bottle caps, lighters… Not only the birds eat this plastic waste, but the fish do too.
I heard someone built a boat that can “clean” those plastic wastes. Is it relevant?
People love hero stories and wunderkind stories, someone that grows to be this superhero and who makes good. Honestly, I wish him the best. But at this point, I don’t believe anything. Everything that I saw was pretty unrealistic. The plastic waste problem is really young, not like the oil-related problems. There is not a big knowledge of this issue and specialists who work on it are lacking. There are only passionate activists, without much money or means. The only thing they can do is make as much noise as they can, raise awareness. We wanted to focus on ocean plastic because it is a very graphic problem that we can easily translate to the masses. It’s a very simple cause: plastic doesn’t belong there, that’s it.
Where is this plastic waste coming from?
It comes from boats, from the gyres. It also comes from the land, from the wind. There are a lot of plastic bags and bottles, a lot of detergents, milk bottles, tons of different types of bottles. We are currently working on a huge project in Australia, where a lot of big stuff washes in, which is good because we can then collect them. The problem is that plastic can never be destructed. If you burn it, it creates pollution. You can convert it into energy for example. The solution is to change plastic from its creation, and that is what we’re trying to achieve. The short-term solution is to put plastic waste away because it should not be eaten by animals. The plastic material is just wrongly designed and it is not meant to be here. So we have to design a material that dissolves without leaving toxic traces. I’m not talking about bio-plastic because it doesn’t help! We have to reinvent plastic. To a certain extent, we do have to get rid of it. We don’t need plastic straws, plastic bags, or plastic bottles.
Something in the legislation has to change, don’t you think?
I think lawmaking is too slow. I believe in the power of the industries, of the artists, of the designers, the media… I believe in the power of trends. I believe we can set a new standard way before it reaches the sphere of the law. I believe in the great power of humanity. The whole idea of Parley is to create a collaboration between the best people in their fields.
Did you find a way to create a new fabric to replace plastic?
We found an organization first. Parley is a new form of environmental organization that combines business, in a way, to make it very lucrative for big companies to become ocean-friendly, and a non-profit angle. Parley has to arms: one as a Research and Development company funded by the industries, which allow them to use the materials that we develop. The other is a non-profit organization that cleans up the oceans. Our work is to clean the beaches by collaborating with all the local people while building a network. All the plastic waste collected from the beaches is sent to our facilities and partners in order to be recycled.
Interview by Armelle Leturcq.