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How Patagonia is tackling the plastic problem

Beyond reducing our dependence on plastic, is there another way of looking at things? At the ends of the earth, communities of Patagonian entrepreneurs are looking at the world through recycled shades

By Aaron Millar
Published 21 May 2019, 12:15 BST
Man collecting netting from beach
Photograph by Pia Vergara

In the shadow of the Yate Volcano, deep in the Cochamó Valley of northern Patagonia, dark rain clouds gather on the horizon, a cool breeze whips the water, and Pedro walks alone. The beach is littered with plastic, old fishing nets mostly, blown in by the prevailing winds from the trawling grounds further out to sea. He comes here most days to clean the beach. For years, no one helped him. No one paid him. He carried what he found back to his home a mile away. “Nature is God’s face,” he says. “It makes me angry to see people throwing trash onto it.” Each day the wind would bring more plastic and he’d walk alone collecting it. But now, for the first time, it’s getting easier. He works with a smile on his face. And that’s thanks to, of all things, a pair of sunglasses. 

The plastic Pedro collects goes to Karün, an eyewear company with a big vision. Set up by Patagonian local Thomas Kimber six years ago, Karün has flipped traditional economics on its head. Instead of exploiting resources, the business model is circular and regenerative. It links economy with conservation. It empowers local communities and has inspired genuine innovation by asking new questions. 

“The biggest problems we’re experiencing in the world today,” Thomas says, “are symptoms of a way of thinking. If we want to make a change that lasts, we need to build new roads.” At its most basic level, that new road is about transforming the way we think about waste. It’s an ambitious task. In the UK alone, we produce more than 100 million tonnes a year — enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall every two hours. Waste is something we discard, something repellent. For Karün, it’s a raw material.

Using wood from fallen trees, denim from old jeans, salmon skin from fisheries and, in Pedro’s case, the plastic from discarded fishing nets, Karün is turning old crap into new cool. But it’s the fishing nets that have, quite literally, spread the company’s name around the world. Karün’s Sailing Collection was codeveloped and worn by the professional yachtsmen and women of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, helping to raise awareness of plastic pollution in our ocean. 

As far as waste goes, it was an obvious place to start. Eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year. If we continue dumping plastic in the sea at the present rate, measured by weight, there will be more plastic than fish by 2050. Some 10% of that waste is discarded fishing gear. In the Great Pacific garbage patch — the mass of plastic trash floating somewhere between California and Hawaii — that number is closer to 50%. 

But it’s not just about cleaning up your local beach. We’re addicted. Our packaging is full of it. Our drinks are wrapped in it. Even our clothes are filled with synthetic microplastics that drain into the ocean, ending up in our food chain. We don’t just need to recycle, we need to change our entire mindset. 

Photograph by Aaron Millar

Plastic for life?

The Cochamó Valley is spectacular — it’s known as the Yosemite of South America — lush mountain fjords, soaring cliffs, waterfalls pouring into deep blue lakes. But there aren’t many jobs. After we helped Pedro collect plastic nets on the beach, he invited us back to his house, where his wife Rosa had just opened a small roadside restaurant on the back porch. It turned out we were her first customers. There were chickens running through the yard, clouds kissing the snow-capped peaks and delicious empanadas hot from the oven, meat and vegetables, quinoa and cheese, gooey chocolate with raspberries fresh from the garden.

From plastic nets to empanadas. It’s a good trade. Like all the people Karün works with, Pedro and his wife are entrepreneurs; it’s a requisite that they must use that money as seed capital to invest in microenterprises of their own — in this case, Rosa’s restaurant. 

As is the contemporary wisdom: poverty is alleviated by entrepreneurship, not aid. And the social innovation in this case comes from a collaborative organisation called Balloon Latam. Set up by another Patagonian local, Sebastian Salinas, it now forms the backbone of what Karün does, working with a community, over a four-year period, to teach entrepreneurial skills that help transform passions and abilities into profitable cottage industries. It works because it’s given gravity. They may be microbusinesses, but each is planned with the same macroeconomic levels of precision, care and expertise that are applied in boardrooms around the world. 

The Karün model isn’t perfect. Many environmentalists would argue the only solution to the problem of plastic pollution is to stop plastic use altogether. By creating yet another plastic product, albeit one made out of recycled materials, aren’t they just delaying the inevitable? Ultimately, even these glasses will end up on a rubbish heap. Karün has two answers to this. The first one’s practical: when you’re finished with your sunglasses, send them back. Karün will recycle them and give you a discount on your next pair. The second one’s deeper: this isn’t really about recycling. It’s about changing our perception of waste in general. If plastic can be transformed from into a desirable object, then wearing that product becomes a metaphor for that change. 

It’s about changing our perception of business too. The fashion industry is one of the top five most polluting industries in the world. If a sunglasses company can make a successful product, using a regenerative, rather than exploitative, model, who else might be inspired to follow suit?

There’s also the question of long-term feasibility. What happens to Pedro and Rosa when all the nets are gone? By making communities reliant on a resource they’re helping to diminish, aren’t they setting them up to fail? Again, there are two answers. First: it won’t happen soon. World Animal Protection reports that 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is lost or abandoned in the ocean every year. We’re moving towards a plastic-free society, but we’re generations away; and while that shift is happening, we need to recycle and reuse as much as we can. Secondly, the entrepreneurial skills learnt by people like Pedro and Rosa are transferable — not just to other forms of waste, though that’s also the case (discarded salmon skin from nearby salmon farms is used as a raw material by Karün and will seemingly offer a continual supply). But also, to other forms of business in general. That spark isn’t extinguished when the waste is all gone. It’s passed on to the next generation, and will continue to burn brighter the more it’s used.

Plus, it’s working. In 2018, the Cochamó Valley programme turned 20 tonnes of discarded fishing nets into seed capital for more than 200 microentrepreneurs. This year, that number is expected to grow by 50%. And, by linking conservation with economics, by making the prosperity of a village economically connected to the preservation of their land, they help protect the ecosystem and safeguard against outside development as well as regenerate the community at the same tim

Photograph by Aaron Millar

Seeds of change

Later that afternoon, we drove a few miles down the road to meet a graduate of the programme. Elsa lives alone on a small patch of land overlooking the Reloncaví Estuary with strawberries growing in the garden and soaring mountains overhead. Her house is humble: two small rooms patchworked together with a wood-burning stove in the middle and a large wooden loom where she does her work on the side. But her spirit is huge. She gave us hugs, she made pastries, we passed maté around. She showed us how to weave, how to spin the wool, how she collects it from local shepherds, treats it and dyes it by hand, then threads it together to create bright patterns of green, blue and orange, which are turned into saddle bags, ponchos and, now, sheaths for sunglasses too.

“My boys,” as she calls the shepherds, “helped me learn to appreciate my work.” In a little over a year, Elsa has gone from lacking in confidence, ashamed of her art and giving it away, despite needing the money, to selling across the region, supporting herself and teaching other women in her community how to set up cottage industries of their own.

That night, we travelled up the bright turquoise waters of the Puelo River to the Karün Lodge, two small cabins on the edge of the water with a wood-fired hot tub and wraparound decks overlooking the flow. There are plans to turn it into a guest lodge, one day, a place for customers to come and see first-hand where their money is going. 

But we were there to meet the neighbours: Jose Miguel Jara, who’s used his seed capital to invest in a boat to take tourists on fly-fishing trips. Rony, a shepherd who lives high in the mountains and wants to show visitors his old trails. Pato, his son, who makes homemade knives out of recycled chainsaws and is setting up a workshop to make cases for Karün. We visited their farms, pigs, dogs and kittens roaming free. We sat together by the fire at night, swapping stories and drinking red wine. They told us of the difficulty of their lives, how they’ve struggled to raise their kids in such an isolated spot. How much it means to have someone visit, to have someone care. 

How far could this be scaled? What about other disenfranchised communities around the world where poverty and pollution are a problem? We stayed up late into the night talking about plastic consumption in Asia and the West. Can the model be applied to cities? Can it help alleviate urban poverty or even homelessness? If we can transform waste into opportunities, and opportunities into prosperity, then the two billion tonnes we throw out every year become two billion sparks of inspiration and innovation. 

It’s already happening of course, Right now, around the world, there are companies that make skateboards out of recycled ocean plastic and others that produce designer clothes out of landfill. There are people offering technologies for free online that can transform used household plastic into jewellery, crockery and accessories. Youngsters are inventing machines to clean up our oceans, chemists are creating plastic bags that don’t leak pollutants into the food chain. There’s a change happening, a new wind blowing around the world; in the end, that new wind is what this is really all about. Because there’s another reason Karün uses sunglasses as a vehicle for change — and it’s perhaps the most important reason of all: you see the world through them. 

And that comes back to the central question. Right now, we’re coming to the end of an old story. For more than 200 years, since the dawn of the industrial age, human beings have seen themselves as masters of the planet. That mindset spurred exponential growth and remarkable advances in technology. But that old story has become unstable. The question is: can we turn the page?

“Sunglasses aren’t going to change the world,” Thomas said as the fire died down on our last night. “But if we can prove business can be done in a different way, then we can be a symbol of a new way of looking at the world.”  

Follow @aaronmwriter

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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