The ocean is our planet’s source of life. A bounty of natural beauty, it produces over half of our oxygen and supports countless ecosystems and livelihoods. Sadly, our seas are littered with manmade pollution, most commonly plastic. Whether you’ve recently watched Seaspiracy or been to a beach littered with plastic straws and wrappers, you’ll known what we’re talking about. And it’s not just an aesthetic problem; plastic trash harms our environment in ways we can and can’t see. For example, did you know over 35% of microplastics in our oceans come from synthetic textiles alone? Yes, that stat blew our minds too.
After a personal health scare caused by ocean pollution, sea lover and enthusiastic media personality Mathilda D’Silva set out to find solutions. Her colourful journey led to her founding Ocean Purpose Project, a social enterprise dedicated to cleaning and protecting our oceans, starting in Singapore. For our World Environment Day campaign #Down4Earth, we chatted about the ways in which her company is making waves (pun intended!) to carry the cause further.
What defining moments led you to found the social enterprise Ocean Purpose Project?
I’ve always loved the water, having lived close to the beach for most of my life. I even dragon-boated competitively for 7 years until tragedy struck. In 2015, I was hospitalised after a race in Boracay. At times, I couldn’t walk or speak. This was devastating, considering I’ve spent my whole life depending on my voice for a livelihood, first as an ex-Singapore Idol contestant and then working in media.
It was only a few years later that I realised what had caused my condition: water pollution. The island of Boracay shut for 6 months after authorities discovered raw sewage pumped into beaches frequented by tourists. It shocked me to my core. Just three days of exposure to polluted water compromised my health to such an extent? There’s even a picture of us warming up on the beach in 2015; we were standing in this green goo, brought about by raw sewage.
It was this incident that spurred on my work to improve oceans around the world. I’m a naturally impatient and stubborn person. This, combined with a need to understand why I fell sick led me to take up the mantle to improve the health of coastlines around the world, starting with my own backyard, Pasir Ris in Singapore.
“It was only a few years later that I realised what had caused my condition: water pollution. The island of Boracay shut for 6 months after authorities discovered raw sewage pumped into beaches frequented by tourists. It shocked me to my core. Just three days of exposure to polluted water compromised my health to such an extent?”
Whether it’s beach clean-ups, working with volunteers or public education, what’s your favourite part of what you do?
I love going to work at the beach, in shorts and slippers. Ideating in a space where no one has been before, pushing the boundaries of what is possible. It feels fulfilling to work with a purpose with young, driven individuals with a high sense of integrity. Even making colleagues out of salty old uncles and aunties who read the waves through experience and celebrate sunsets with beer and fruit grown on their floating fish farms.
It’s such a pleasure speaking to children. They’re so smart and straightforward with their observations of plastic waste. I feel like they’re teaching me more than I can teach them! The fact that I’m able to take this crazy idea that started in my head and translate it into jobs, products and markets that have the potential to change the world is extraordinary. That’s the life I crafted for myself. Yes, it comes at a price: no sparkling pay packet like before. But having the freedom to work, live and play the way I define it? That’s priceless.
We feel you. What dreams are you realising through the Ocean Purpose Project? Creating bioplastics using native seaweed sounds truly fascinating!
Ask any of my staff and they will tell you how it seems like we always have 10,000 projects going on at once; but our three main pillars would be: Plastic to Fuel, Bioplastics and Behavioural Change.
Plastic to Fuel is really what kickstarted everything. If plastic comes from oil, why can’t we turn it back into oil? We’re bringing together the best-in-class engineering and research partners across the globe (from Germany, India, Singapore) to build the OPP PTF (Plastic to Fuel) Unit: a world-first that converts plastic waste into oil as well as high-value, multi-purpose products. The OPP PTF unit is perfectly suited to slash greenhouse gas emissions and capture all the waste plastic floating at sea and turn this into truly circular products.
Bioplastics were the next intuitive pillar as we’d still need a single-use plastic alternative. We work with an Indonesian company, an expert in producing different kinds of seaweed products, including edible options. We also want to expand and explore a more hardy form of bioplastic made from mussels.
Changing mindsets is often the biggest challenge.
Behavioural change is a big priority for us; we want to create opportunities to mobilise and educate communities in Singapore. This way, Singaporeans can grow a greater sense of belonging and responsibility towards their coastal environment. Primarily, we do this through beach clean-ups here at Pasir Ris. One of the most common questions we get is: where does all the trash go after the clean-up? This is when we share with them the possibilities of our long-term projects to build the OPP Hub. Imagine if after a clean up, you could put your trash directly into our OPP PTF unit and see it turned into products? Or, if we collect seaweed that washes up on our shores, people can see how it is turned into bioplastic.
We complement our offline projects with online ones. We regularly run online webinars with industry experts, NGOs and community leaders. On top of that, we run social media campaigns like our ‘Sponsor a Reef Star’ program, where we restore a coral reef in East Bali stricken by trawling during COVID-19. We plant corals on hexagonal steel stars which corporations or individuals can brand their names on.
Wow! How do you get a hand on seaweed and mussels in Singapore?
For this, we partner with our very cute kelong uncle, Uncle Goh (endearingly known as Ah Heng amongst the kelong community). He calls me Ah Matt or Induo Mei (beautiful Indian girl) which probably alludes to the swimsuit I was wearing when I first paddled alongside his kelong. He’s a very innovative uncle in his own way. He constructed his own rainwater capture system and built everything with his own two hands from his years of experience in the scaffolding business. Unfortunately, his kelong has also been hit by waves of algal bloom every year. The algae wipe out his fish stock since the bloom starves fish of oxygen.
That’s where the seaweed and mussels come in. They are natural bio-filters, meaning that they absorb excess nutrients, toxins and even carbon. So, imagine if we could plant a “curtain” of seaweed and mussels around his kelong. This way, we could protect his fish stock, purify our seas, provide Uncle a secondary source of income and create a steady supply to be turned into our biodegradable plastic!
What was a key action or solution that helped to further the cause?
I joined beach clean-ups organised by NGOs around Singapore. However, it’s so irritating to look at all the trash we collected, and know it wasn’t going to be recycled. At one clean up, I met a Pilates teacher named Lisa Jones. She was equally frustrated that a turnkey solution to ocean plastic wasn’t easily available.
Things really started taking shape in 2019, when Lisa reached out about piloting a smaller and simpler version of the PTF (plastic to fuel) unit in Medang Indonesia. The island was inundated with 2 to 3 metres of plastic washing up on their shores every day. After we introduced the machines, we saw quick changes. There were more jobs, it helped restore fisherman’s livelihoods and people of all ages actively contributed to this movement. The machine was producing 3 litres of fuel per day from 300kg of plastic. They turned their plastic pollution into a source of virtually free energy. This was a powerful means of mobilising the community to prevent ocean plastic pollution with clear, tangible solutions.
Even now, every few weeks, I receive messages from Indonesia, India, the Philippines and Thailand asking for more of these PTF machines. I literally just received a WhatsApp in the time it took to type this interview from Perlis and Penang, Malaysia asking if we can ship the machine ASAP.
What’s one thing about water pollution or ocean conservation that not many realise?
We’re always trying to get Singaporeans to realise that plastic is a problem, even here on our island nation. At beach clean-ups, people are always so surprised at the amount of waste on our shores. Recently, we collected 480.5kg of trash in just over an hour, and this is in spite o our hardworking cleaners cleaning these beaches daily from 7 to 7.
The latest stats from NEA is that Singapore’s recycling rate fell to a 10-year low in 2020, with plastic being the largest contributor of waste at 868,000 tonnes. Yet, our plastic recycling rate remains at a mere 4%. At that clean-up, we asked a little girl what she thought about all the trash collected. She exclaimed rather loudly, “disappointing!” And you could see all the heads of the adults hung low as she went on to question why the situation was as such.
Learning about what happens to trash is one thing, but we’re in urgent need of innovative game-changers who dare to challenge the way we see waste.
Finally, how would you like to see more individuals or brands be #Down4Earth?
We have to disrupt sustainability as we know it. It’s not just the domain of tree-huggers or corporates trying to make themselves look good on the ESG spreadsheets. We need to create a ‘blue ocean’ of possibility and rewrite what ‘business as usual’ really is. Ocean Purpose Project’s goal is to bring about disruptive change in the way we manage the problems of marine pollution through test-bedding innovative projects.
Don’t be afraid to just go out and try ideas. Organise your own beach clean-up, do the research, start your own movement. Everyone can find their own ways to connect with the environment, whether you’re a musician, a diver or an engineer. I’m proof that you don’t need an Environmental Science degree or years of experience in sustainability to make a change. Now is the time to start today to save tomorrow. When people come together, great things can happen.
#Down4Earth is a social awareness campaign launched by ZERRIN on World Environment Day 2021. The campaign features Singapore-based sustainability advocates with a passion for urban farming, circular fashion, composting and more. They prove that there’s more to sustainability than the quintessential 3 R’s and there’s something everyone can do. Discover more about the campaign. Photography, styling and production by ZERRIN STUDIO.
Susannah believes better design can help create a brighter future. A former magazine editor, she now runs ZERRIN and works at the intersection of consumers, brands and sustainability advocacy.