“This is not something to be proud of,” says Ursula van Eck, cofounder of Ocean-i, a local enterprise that works towards stopping the flow of plastic into the sea and other waterways. By integrating the product value chain from raw material sourcing and processing to design and manufacture, Ocean-i creates a range of innovative designer urban furniture made from recycled plastic.
It is part of Endeavor South Africa, global network that identifies, supports and grows entrepreneurs to help them scale, and has placed significant emphasis on small businesses in the greentech space that are making a real impact on the environment.
A former CA, Van Eck took a sabbatical in 2019 and found herself pondering how she could make a difference to the amount of waste that ends up in our canals, rivers and oceans. As part of her research, she soon realised that she and her partner would need some expert help. They found this in waste management company Enviroserv and this association quickly resulted in a plan of action for two clean-ups and a waste assessment of the Blue Downs canal banks during 2020. Armed with this insight, she realised that preventing the flow of plastic into the ocean and waterways and producing innovative new products from the recycled plastic would be the most effective solution.
Among Ocean-i’s future plans is the creation of self-sustaining mini-hubs in low-income communities where residents will be encouraged to bring their plastic waste and earn rewards: either in basic foodstuffs, cleaning products or airtime. With this project, she intends to reframe the narrative that waste shouldn’t be thrown away - it can be reused, repurposed or recycled in some way and thereby upskill, create employment opportunities and contribute in a meaningful way towards halting the flow of waste into our rivers, waterways and the ocean.
Another area of the Ocean-i business is the recycling of cigarette butts. Before founding Ocean-i Van Eck saw the extreme volume of butts on beaches and in public places and wanted to do something about it. Through her research, she found that butts are the major causes of litter on the planet and are made of a type of plastic that doesn’t biodegrade. However, when processed with other typically non-recyclable plastic, they produce an additive that can be applied in the production of concrete products instead of using sand.
Using this additive, prototype concrete products were developed by Ocean-i and local architect Pieter Matthews to create a uniquely designed bench and a fun and funky ‘cigbutt bin’. The additive is now also being used to create paving and piping among other products.
While the business is still very much in the startup phase, it is aiming to implement a cigbutt pilot project at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town where cigarette butts will be collected (each bin is sold with a monthly recycling contract) and recycled. Thereafter, Van Eck intends on engaging other mixed-use precincts, developers, and landlords to do the same.
She says, “Whatever we can do to get cigarettes out of landfills and our rivers will make all the difference. We want to find new ways to recycle and repurpose these and other plastics to create new products.”