We recover ghost nets from the oceans – and other great companies like GOT BAG fight against the other kinds of plastic waste in our seas. Now, we’re joining our focus with the Save the Seas Pack! We’ve interviewed GOT BAG for you to learn more about the background and impact of their backpacks.
But first: What is GOT BAG’s mission? In order to preserve marine biodiversity and ecosystems, the German company works with around 2.000 fishermen and fisherwomen off the north coast of Java in Indonesia to collect plastic as bycatch from the sea. The PET part is turned into backpacks, bags and accessories; the remaining plastic is recycled and returned to the value chain.
Now, off to the interview!
Questions about the foundation
What role did your own conviction to protect the oceans play in the founding of GOT BAG?
Our founder Benny has been closely connected to the sea since his childhood and wanted to actively do something about the fact that more and more plastic is ending up in the oceans. Symbolically, a backpack fits well, as it stands for the fact that we all have to shoulder the big task of securing water quality for the future of flora and fauna. In fact, however, the idea of a backpack came about by chance but made sense to him above all because it can ideally be a particularly durable and robust product that’s easy to care for. Today, we and all our customers are not only convinced of the original idea but also of our functional backpacks with their minimalist, timeless design.
How did you assess your potential to make a real difference to plastic pollution before you started? How do you look back on it now?
Since the founding of GOT BAG, we believe that we can mobilise a lot of people with our message and raise awareness for a more conscious use of plastic. Today, we look back and see that the GOT BAG Family is growing faster than ever and that our backpacks are seen as a symbol for a more conscious use of resources and as a sign of a generation that is actively fighting against the climate catastrophe and for the preservation of our environment.
What we still find most impressive is the impact we have already achieved at the collection points for ocean plastic in Indonesia. Our holistic approach will by no means solve the entire problem, but it exemplifies a new form of value creation. Especially in a country like Indonesia, where the waste infrastructure is only rudimentary and which is the world’s second-largest contributor to marine pollution, a sustainable system change can bring about real change.
What were the key design criteria for the GOT BAG?
We wanted the design to be particularly timeless and sustainable and also reflected this in the functionality: Every backpack is robust and practical. The colour black stands for elegance, practicality and functionality. With the characteristic GOT BAG flag, we carry the GOT BAG corporate colours into the world – in fact, they are also humanity’s favourite colours. They symbolise our team’s vision to unite people by working passionately to free the world’s oceans from plastic. By creating a movement united by a common belief in a functioning circular economy. And by never getting tired of highlighting the grievances associated with ocean plastic.
How is your team structured?
We now have over 60 employees, ‘one team – a family, a movement of visionary minds’. Our founder Benjamin Mandos’ motto also applies to the future. Despite rapid growth, we want to maintain the inspiring atmosphere of a start-up. The idea of being committed to future generations and focusing on the development and implementation of sustainable solutions is firmly anchored in our guiding principles: “Create an Impact!” – to bring about change with our own actions.
Questions about production:
Where does the ocean plastic for your products come from?
We actively collect the plastic for all our products from the sea ourselves with our own clean-up programme in Demak, on the north coast of Java in Indonesia. Our headquarter in Mainz is a long way from there, but our team member Max Schmiel is the link and is present on location for the clean-up activities. We work with around 2,000 local fishermen by now, who collect the ocean plastic that gets caught in their nets as bycatch. The raw material is also sorted, cleaned and processed into yarn in Indonesia. All production steps are certified and meet the highest requirements for socially responsible working conditions.
Critical voices are growing louder about products made from “ocean plastic”. They say that rubbish collected from the oceans needs to be sorted in a very complex way and is often so dirty, damaged and mixed that only a fraction can really be recycled. Therefore, often only a very small proportion of marine plastic is supposedly mixed with a large proportion of post-consumer plastic or even virgin plastic. What do you say in response to this critique?
The core of GOT BAG’s corporate philosophy is to address the marine plastic problem holistically: All plastics recovered by the network’s fishermen are fed into individual recycling solutions. From the very beginning, our founders looked for innovative ways to reuse not only the valuable PET but also all other materials. They were able to realise their project in Indonesia because they quickly found partners here who could process the marine plastic into pellets in a technologically sophisticated process that meets European standards. They were also able to identify customers here for all the plastics recovered beyond PET, which they use to produce other new articles or to generate heat. At the same time, cooperations with local organisations were initiated on-site, which, together with the fishermen of our network, have become important multipliers for the education of the local population and, with their knowledge about plastic waste and recycling, achieve higher environmental awareness and increased environmental protection in their environment. This has increased the pressure on authorities to find solutions for a sustainable waste system. In the meantime, we are in close exchange with the local government and together we are looking for long-term solutions to preserve intact ecosystems.
Are ghost nets often found by your fishing network? If so, what happens to them?
Since our clean-ups are close to the shore, we collect relatively little of it – the PP or nylon that’s usually used for nets accounts for less than 5% of the by-catch that the fishermen in our network collect for us. We are currently still storing these materials and working with research and development partners to find suitable ways to process them into new products.
How high is the proportion of marine plastic in the finished backpack?
In terms of surface area, the majority of each product is made of marine plastic. In terms of weight, it is around 50% because other ingredients such as buckles or zips made from recycled plastic are relatively heavy.
What happens to the plastic you can’t use?
Materials made of PP, HDPE, LDPE, PS and PVC are passed on to locally based companies, which feed them into appropriate recycling solutions. They are reprocessed through mechanical processes and used directly for the production of new items. Other types of plastic, multilayer plastics and highly decomposed plastic residues are currently still being stored, but will soon be incinerated for heat generation as part of a cooperation with Cleanhub and Indocement. Cleanhub documents the amounts of plastic collected. They use the plastic we collect for offset offers to their business partners, who can offset their plastic emissions by buying certificates. The offset proceeds largely benefit our cleaning activities and the local infrastructure.
Did you set up your value chain yourselves or did you tap into existing structures?
We are convinced that you can only create and sustain strong sustainable production processes through a continuous commitment to change. From the very beginning, we have built every single step of the value chain ourselves, meticulously sought partners and we continue to optimise. We break down our complex production process and extensive supply chain into individual sub-steps. Without our partners and their respective expertise, it would be unthinkable to talk about sustainable products. This is how we manage to minimise the impact of our production on nature.
What coating do you use to make your backpacks waterproof?
All GOT BAG products are made of tightly woven textile from marine plastic and they are covered with a water-based polyurethane (PU) layer, for the production of which no fossil raw materials are used. The material is basically waterproof and has a water column of 20,000 mm.
How do you ensure that your products can be recycled in the end?
This is exactly what we are doing with our GOT BAG Cycle. Since our products should be used for as long as possible without having to be repurchased, our customers will hopefully soon be able to use our repair service if the durable backpacks ever wear out or become damaged. When they can no longer be repaired, the material will be returned to our production. We are working hard on this process right now, with the goal of ensuring that the plastic collected by the network’s fishermen never ends up in the sea again. To be honest, however, our company is still so young that this has not happened so far; at most, we have had minor complaints or defects. As a team, we are of course pleased about this – on the one hand, it speaks for the quality of our products and, on the other hand, for the fact that our customers treat their GOT BAGs with care.
Questions about sustainability
How much plastic have you removed from the oceans so far?
More than 150 tons.
For us, sustainability is always a process. Are there areas in which you still want to optimise?
Yes, of course, for us it is also a process. As already mentioned, we want to optimise the recycling of salvaged marine plastic and find solutions to recycle other types of plastic as an innovation leader and to develop new processing methods – we are already in contact with relevant research institutes. In the long term, the GOT BAG product range should be able to replace more and more conventionally manufactured products. In addition to Indonesia, we are looking for other locations to increase raw material quantities and expand capacities. Since the composition of plastic waste varies greatly depending on the region and environmental influences such as currents and winds, the availability of the plastic raw material is to be kept at a constant level through improved cleaning and material recycling.
We also want to become more prominent internationally: We want to use our momentum to strengthen our pioneering role as a sustainable fashion company. In doing so, we primarily want to generate attention, raise awareness of the problem of environmental pollution and identify concrete solutions together with fellow campaigners, politicians and the public. Therefore, high-profile campaigns are planned for the coming years to prove that economic goals can go hand in hand with responsible, sustainable action.
How do you support the oceans beyond your products? Do you also do educational work on “ocean plastic”?
Yes, because we want to raise awareness for a responsible use of plastic and thus fight the problem with marine plastic at the point before pollution even occurs. The fishermen in our network in the Demak region have become important multipliers for educating the population. They pass on their knowledge about plastic waste and recycling and thus achieve a higher environmental awareness and increased environmental protection in their surroundings. We also organise workshops and events to increase pressure on the authorities through educational work and to find solutions for a sustainable waste system. The concept is working: Currently, we are in close exchange with the government, which supports our work and looks for long-term solutions together with us. Our latest project is the “GOT BAG Recycling Academy”. With this project, we want to teach local students about recycling, waste separation and the consequences of plastic pollution in a playful way.
How do you work together with your partners in Indonesia?
On the one hand, we have our clean-up manager Billy, who comes from Indonesia, on site. On the other hand, Max Schmiel, our clean-up coordinator, is usually in Demak. Due to the Corona pandemic, however, he is unfortunately unable to be there at the moment and is therefore coordinating the clean-up from Germany. He is in close and regular contact with our partners.
How important are cooperations with other companies for you?
Cooperations with other companies are very important for us. We believe that we can only create change together and show that business can be profitable without resorting to environmentally damaging and exploitative practices. Together we can withstand the economic pressure of profit-driven big corporations that have responded to the sustainability trend with their own eco-labels. We need a movement that fights for a plastic-free future for the oceans. With a cooperation like with you, we can achieve an even bigger impact together and reach and inspire even more people for our vision to free the oceans from plastic.
What is your top tip for those who already have a GOT BAG to do more for marine conservation at home?
Educate others around you! Talk to your family, friends and acquaintances and explain to them the dimensions and consequences of plastic use. Let’s all fight together, start questioning our actions and actively bring about change.
Do you have a message for our community?
Let’s create an impact together! 🙂
We are excited about our cooperation!
Thank you, dear GOT BAG team, for your answers! By the way, we are happy to help you find solutions for the nets you have recovered but have not yet been able to process. We will be in touch to discuss this with you shortly!
This interview was originally conducted in German.