Ali Murrell: The Man Behind #bottlestoboardshorts

Recycling the waste plastic bottles that litter our beaches and oceans into material to turn into our swim shorts is an incredibly rewarding mission that nonetheless presents us with some very specific challenges.  The man who meets these challenges head on in his role heading up our #bottlestoboardshorts project is Ali Murrell, one of the founding partners behind Riz Boardshorts. 

At what point did you take the decision to pursue the dream of making shorts from your own collected marine plastics, beyond just using 100% recycled polyester fabric as you always have done?

We have always supported the Marine Conservation Society and known for a while that plastic bottles are finding their way to the sea and landing on our beaches in ever increasing numbers, but it dawned on me when I realised that the actual cause of the problem was literally sitting on our doorsteps. Seeing all the plastic litter in and around my neighbourhood in London, knowing where this is likely to end up, made me think that there must be something positive that can be done to reduce and ultimately prevent this situation from getting any worse.

Do you have any idea how many plastic bottles have been collected for #bottlestoboardshorts so far?

Ask me in a week or two and I will have a better idea for you!  We are about to collect all of the bottles from the upcoming Brighton Triathlon and, at the same time; count, crush and bail all the bottles we have stored from previous collections. At a guess, I think we have reached about 20,000.

discarded single use plastic water bottle littering a beach

What is the story behind the recycled polyester currently used to produce Riz swimwear?  How does it differ from the fabric that you’re aiming to produce? 

Our current fabric has been carefully sourced to give us exactly what we need; great feel; quick drying and, importantly, made from 100% recycled polyester, rPET as it is known. rPET is essentially a re-composition of the same plastic (PET) that you find in most clear drinking bottles. Every day, tonnes of bottles are recycled and shipped to Taiwan where our factory then creates the rPET yarn and finally our fabric specification. Whilst it is great that you can recycle bottles into fabric there are still very high percentages of bottles that never make it into recycling programmes, either finding their way to landfill or entering the litter stream, into waterways and ultimately the seas, oceans and beaches. Our aim is to divert and collect these bottles to create our fabric in a fully traceable and circular process and ideally do this closer to home. I think provenance is very important and powerful. I believe that the more people understand about what happens to all the plastic that we use today, the more engaged in trying to prevent and solve the problem they will become.  People need tangible proof. The #bottlestoboardshorts project is about showing people that one man’s trash truly can be another man’s treasure.

rolls of the recycled polyester fabric used to make riz boardshorts and swim shorts

What is the biggest challenge that you’ve faced to date in trying to produce a Riz fabric from plastic bottles collected at beach cleans?

Initially I thought that it would be the condition of the bottles. It turns out though that this is the least of our issues!  Unfortunately the sea and the tides are fickle things and it is very hard to predict where or when a given beach will be heavily littered or not. We know that the bottles are out there based on the great work of organisations such as the Marine Conservation Society and their litter surveys, but being in the right place at the right time is a real challenge. We have relied on the amazing scores of volunteer groups around the country to help get the project off the ground and they have been so supportive; this does leave us with the challenge of co-ordinating all their efforts into one seamless process. Ultimately we want to design a system that can work on a commercial scale!

Being a sailor, and having sailed across the Pacific Ocean, what is your take on the health of our oceans based upon your own observations over time?

I can remember whilst crossing the Pacific the overriding sense of the wondrous and vast remoteness of this great ocean. You feel on the one hand totally isolated from the world that you know, and at the same time completely connected to the immediate environment in front of you. And then, in the blink of an eye, a large collection of human litter would suddenly drift past you as an all-to-visible reminder of the damage that we humans have done and continue to do. The scientists will tell you that this is the tip of the iceberg as the plastics break down and sink towards the ocean floor. I saw enough litter in the time I was on the ocean to know we have created a real issue that needs immediate action.

riz boardshorts co-founder ali murrell driving a tender across the sea back to shore

 

What changes would you like to see in the fashion and garment industry?

I’ll go back to what I said earlier; for me, provenance is so important in the garment industry as a whole but especially in fashion, given its profile and ability to influence consumers. The more consumers know and understand then the greater the collective responsibility becomes and this can only lead to a more sustainable industry.

Where would you like to see shifts in attitude towards sustainability happen – with consumers, or with producers, distributors and retailers?

This is tough one.  Big business has a responsibility, we need small businesses such as ourselves to keep innovating and pushing the agenda, but at the same time there need to be more consumers willing to stand up and buy responsibly. We are all part of one big circle in the end so distributors and retailers must play their part too. And let’s not forget the role of the government and the public sector. I think the tipping point will only come when co-ordinated action is taken and that is not easy to achieve. We all need to be up for the challenge.

What future plans do you have for the #bottlestoboardshorts project?

I mentioned it earlier, but our ambition is to take what we are learning from the project and design a process that is commercially viable on a long term basis. The goal remains the same; turning plastic bottle litter into our shorts and in so doing help reduce and prevent further plastic pollution. The journey so far has led us further upstream than we initially anticipated and in addition to developing the beach clean network we have also started to understand how and where the litter is getting into water systems in the first place. I believe there are opportunities to intercept a lot of litter before it gets too far downstream and starts breaking down in the sea. Focusing on urban areas as well as large scale outdoor events provides opportunities twofold – not only can you trap a large volume of plastic litter but you can also communicate and hopefully influence the behaviour of a captive audience. Going into 2017, we will definitely be looking for more opportunities like the Brighton Triathlon.

If you could ask each person who reads this to make one small change in his or her day-to-day lives, what would it be?

There has been a lot of “giving up plastic for lent” or “plastic free July” initiatives recently; these are real challenges as those that do try them will find out. Perhaps, as a start, look at all of the areas that plastic touches your life today and see if you can live without it. Start with single-use plastics and see where you can go from there. You might find the challenge is fun and rewarding.

discarded coca cola bottle floating in the sea

If people want to help the #bottlestoboardshorts project directly, what can they do?

That’s simple: get in touch, drop me an email with your thoughts and ideas at ali@rizboardshorts.com. If anyone is organising clean-ups or outdoor events and think that we can work together then I would love to hear from you. But please don’t stop there - if you think of other ways that we might be able to work together then we would love to hear about them.

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