[Note: This story originally ran on the Swell Investing blog.]
What if shredding on a skateboard could help save the world’s oceans and marine life? Or wearing a pair of sunglasses? Or even playing Jenga?
That’s the idea behind Bureo, a company based in both Chile and California that recycles the nylon plastic found in old, discarded fishing nets and turns it into fun, useful products.
Since its inception in 2013, Bureo (pronounced Boo-RAY-o) has worked with local communities in Chile to recycle more than 185,000 kilograms (200+ tons) of nets into skateboards, a collection of Costa Del Mar sunglasses, office chairs from the New York-based Humanscale, a line of surf fins, even a special “Ocean” version of Jenga that features endangered and threatened marine animal designs.
And they want to do more. Stover says the company’s goal is to recycle 1 million kilograms (about 1,000 tons) within the next five years. “It’s been really rewarding work,” Bureo co-founder David Stover says, “challenging work, but something that we’re really happy to do every day.”
Stover and fellow co-founder Ben Kneppers came up with the idea while living together in Australia back in 2012. Both avid surfers who grew up in the Northeast, the two began to notice all the plastic along the beach and in the water during their early-morning rides. They wondered if there’s a way to clean up the ocean waste.
Soon, Kneppers moved to Santiago, Chile and joined an innovation initiative, where he learned about the growing pollution from fishing boats; the crews toss their old, worn-out nets overboard.
Both mechanical engineers, Stover and Kneppers realized they could shred those nets, melt them down, and remold the material into new products. Stover later brought in college classmate and co-founder Kevin Ahern to help with the molding.
“We were all working professionally in careers and decided to take a step away from those jobs and give it a shot,” says Stover. “I don’t think we had intentions of even building a company.”
Indeed, Stover was a consultant for Ernst & Young when the trio launched the company. Ahern left a job at Boeing to join the team. And while Kneppers, a sustainability consultant, has worked in the nonprofit world, it took awhile for the others to adjust to the lean lifestyle.
But as the business developed, Stover realized he wasn’t going back to corporate life. “It wasn’t rewarding work,” Stover says. “I was living with Ben reflecting on our careers, we would brainstorm things that we could do to get more productivity out of work and life. And that’s where the idea [of Bureo] started sparking.”
After moving to Santiago, Kneppers applied to and landed spots in a Chilean startup program and an incubator at his alma mater, Northeastern. Stover built out the business stateside while Kneppers created Net Positiva, a community initiative that pays Chilean fishermen for discarded nets in an effort to stop them from being trashed. Ahern worked on the molding process.
Coupled with additional funding from a Kickstarter campaign, the trio soon had the funds to make their first product: Trash cans.
“We thought it was a good idea,” Stover says.
Thankfully, that one lost traction. Next came surfboards, but the plastic wasn’t a great material for that. It wasn’t until Kneppers went to Lollapalooza Chile that he noticed concertgoers riding on plastic cruiser boards.
“He said, ‘Why don’t we make a skateboard?’” Stover recalls. “That kind of launched it.”
Things have snowballed since. Clothing manufacturer Patagonia has bought into the company through its impact investing arm, Tin Shed Ventures, and Bureo just completed a round of funding. The company continues to grow, reaching nearly $1 million in revenue this year with products in more than 90 retail outlets.
Still, the company “operates on a pretty lean basis,” Stover says, employing a staff of nine across Ventura, California, and Santiago. Meanwhile, Net Positiva has grown to include 26 coastal communities across Chile and Peru. And next year, the company will launch a recycling program that will make their nylon plastic material available to companies online.
“2019 will be a big year for us,” Stover says.
So, feel-good story, right? Even the name Bureo means “the waves” in the language of Chile’s indigenous people, the Mapauche. But there’s a catch. More than 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, Stover says, adding to the 5 ½ trillion tons alreadyin the water. And while that helps Bureo’s bottom line, Stover wants Bureo to change the way we consume plastic, for our oceans’ sake.
“Our focus is to be a part of the solution that tries to keep some of that plastic out of the ocean,” he says, “and inspire others to come up with solutions, on their own, to use less plastic.”
Want to get into the action? Check out the excellent companies in our Zero Wasteportfolio, they’re doing the same good work as Bureo on a larger scale.