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Cleaning up the oceans

How four LBS graduates hope to help cut the eight million tonnes of plastic pouring into our oceans every year

By Rob Morris 06 September 2018

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Paradise was how William Pearson imagined the Maldives before he set sail for the Indian Ocean in 2017. The reality didn’t quite match up. While working as a deckhand on a super-yacht, he spent weeks drifting along the crystal waters around some of the idyllic, white-sand coral islands. But this picture of serenity was suddenly distorted when Pearson encountered ‘Rubbish Island’.  

Thilafushi, an artificial island that has become a dumping ground for hotels to deposit their rubbish, left Pearson feeling aghast – and determined to make a difference. The experience in the Maldives has inspired him to launch The Ocean Bottle, a reusable water bottle that funds the collection of ocean-bound plastic in impoverished coastal communities around the world. 

“You see all this plastic, which is dumped on the island and burned and anything left over drifts into the sea,” says Pearson. “I was in this generally beautiful, pristine location, thinking, ‘How do we prevent this from happening?’ I realised that this plastic, this waste, needed to have a value. That’s what we’re doing with The Ocean Bottle.” 

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Pearson, along with co-founders and fellow LBS graduates Nick Doman, Michelle Wiles and Mauricio Coindreau, is working with the Plastic Bank to make waste plastic – of which about eight million tonnes pours into oceans every year – an asset for some of the world’s poorest people. “80% of ocean plastic comes from impoverished regions so it’s about focusing on those places,” Pearson says. 

Plastic Bank, set up in 2013 to alleviate the level of sea-bound plastic while helping improve impoverished communities around the world, pays locals above the market rate to collect waste. Those people gather plastic from waterways, canals, beaches and other access points to oceans and then take it to collection centres, where it is ground down and later sold to companies that reuse it for their products and packaging. 

The scheme was initially launched in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, and has since been rolled out to the Philippines and Brazil. Plastic Bank plans to extend operations to Indonesia and other countries around the globe. “We want to be the main funding vehicle for Plastic Bank’s global expansion,” Pearson says. 

Stemming the flow of ocean-bound plastic 

Pearson’s venture will support Plastic Bank in two ways: first, each bottle sold will fund the collection of 1,000 ocean-bound plastic bottles that weigh a combined 12kgs, enough to fill a small car. Second, the team wants to establish partnerships with retailers and food chains that will donate money every time a customer visits one of their outlets to refill their reusable bottle. 

Every bottle will carry a smart chip that customers can scan at partner retailers. Businesses involved in the scheme will then pledge, say, 5p to Plastic Bank every time a bottle is scanned in one of their outlets. “We’ve had conversations with lunch chains and there is interest,” Pearson says. He also envisions partnering with office-based businesses that want to help cut the tsunami of ocean-bound plastic. Those companies could make a difference by, for example, purchasing reusable bottles for every employee. 

“There’s scope to set up an impact scheme with companies we partner with,” Pearson says. “Employees could scan their bottles at water fountains around the office and each time that happened, the business would pledge, say 1p, to Plastic Bank. 

“When you buy one of our bottles, you’re helping plastic collectors to earn a fair income. That’s one impact. The second comes from people using their bottle in their daily lives. On average, each person will be mitigating the use of 150 non-reusable plastic bottles a year.”

The bottles will be available initially online from November through a Kickstarter campaign aiming to  raise £150,000 from 5,000 backers. Investors will each receive a bottle once the first batch is produced, paid for by the fundraising. Pearson and his colleagues will then sell the bottles for £30 on The Ocean Bottle website and in select retail stores. 

To raise awareness and drum up support, Pearson is heading to Brazil with a documentary crew to film plastic collectors who drive around in carts picking up waste from people’s homes. They will also visit plastic recycle centres and a polluted river filled with rubbish to highlight the problem. The video, which is being funded by LBS’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, will be used to encourage people to back The Ocean Bottle’s Kickstarter campaign.   

The capital from the fundraising will be invested in developing an “authentic” socially responsible product. “There are so many companies claiming to make sustainable products and in reality they’re doing very little for the environment,” Pearson says. “The purpose of The Ocean Bottle is to create a cool consumer brand that makes a positive difference to the environment.”

Global brands such as Adidas have already set their sights on alleviating this problem, with the sports company manufacturing shoes made from ocean-bound plastic. However, Pearson is convinced his venture will have a greater impact. “You’d have to buy nearly 100 pairs of Adidas shoes, which cost US$150 (£117) each, for the impact of one £30 Ocean Bottle,” he says.  

Sustainability may be central to Pearson’s business plan, but he also expects The Ocean Bottle to be profitable. “It’s about creating a healthy gross margin on each bottle to sustain the business,” he says. “As this is a social enterprise, at least 50% of profit will be reinvested in growth and new products so we continue to make an environmental impact.”

Learning on the job

Cleaning up the seas is a bold vision, particularly for a team that has never launched or run a business before The Ocean Bottle. Nevertheless, that lack of experience has done little to dampen Pearson’s enthusiasm. “My father has his own consumer goods company and I was constantly coming up with ideas about how he could advertise and sell products,” he says. 

“I’ve always been interested in consumers and what drives them to make purchasing decisions. People are now interested in social empowerment, so I thought, ‘How can we channel that as a force to make a real, tangible impact?’”

While studying at LBS, Pearson trademarked The Ocean Bottle name before incorporating the business in March 2018. He and Doman then joined the School’s Launchpad programme, where LBS students with business ideas spend three months developing their concept, brand and marketing strategy, learning to pitch and building a team (Pearson and Doman brought MBA students Michelle Wiles and Mauricio Coindreau on board and worked with Nirmal Chhabria, a mentor on the Executive MBA programme). 

Teaming up with an organisation that had the infrastructure in place to tackle the rising tide of ocean-bound plastic was the next step. Without that partnership, The Ocean Bottle could do little to improve the environment while helping impoverished communities. 

“We can create a product that funds the collection of plastic, but we don’t have the resources or capacity to set up a global initiative involving people in poor coastal towns around the world,” he says. “Without Plastic Bank, we would have had no choice but to walk away from this venture.”

Getting the business to the point where it’s ready to begin product development has – aside from the odd bump – been relatively straightforward, according to Pearson. However, he attributes some of The Ocean Bottle’s early success to good fortune. “Randomness plays a big part,” he says. “I’ve met with a United Nations (UN) ambassador [Peter Thomson, Permanent Representative of Fiji to the UN] to discuss the business and what we’re doing, as he’s heavily involved in sustainable development initiatives for the oceans.

“That meeting came about through Robert Wigley, Head of UK Finance, who contacted me out of the blue on LinkedIn. He’s interested in British start-ups, so we met and he then put me in touch with Peter. I’ve also posted on the LBS alumni network and been connected with someone at the World Economic Forum who’s an expert on oceans. Sticking our necks out and competing in events such as VOOM has also helped us forge new relationships along the way.”    

Launching the bottle and getting partner businesses on board are the immediate objectives. If all goes to plan, Pearson envisages The Ocean Bottle becoming a big brand. “I want us to become a major player in the reusable bottle segment,” he says. “Then we can think about launching more products and come up with other innovative ways to address the global issue of ocean-bound plastic.”

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