Tom Peacock-Nazil is dedicated to cleaning up marine plastic with his organisation Seven Clean Seas
On a weekend getaway in Thailand, Tom Peacock-Nazil and his wife discovered the pristine Sunrise Beach on Koh Lipe. The white sands, turquoise water and palm trees were so beautiful that they went back the next day.
‘It must have only been 12 hours, and this beach – you couldn’t walk on it. An entire plastic island had been deposited somehow.’
After talking to locals, Tom believes it was due to a combination of high tides, stormy weather and a small scale garbage patch of plastic passing at just the right time.
‘I’ve never experienced a situation in my life where something has gone from 10 out of 10 pristine to almost like a horror scene. It shocked us to the point where we thought, we have to do something.’
Tom took that moment of shock and started Seven Clean Seas, an ocean clean-up organisation based in Singapore but operating throughout Southeast Asia. In this conversation, he tells us more about what they do, why he hopes to be out of a job in 10 years and how inspiration comes from the small wins.
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As the beach cleans started to grow – 34 people to 80 people to 120 people to 650 people – Tom says, ’One of the most wholesome things about doing these events is having kids come up and telling us why their parents are bad!’ The parents tell stories of their four year old scolding them in the supermarket for taking an extra bag, and it makes Tom’s heart sing.
Tom shared that everything that has happened with Seven Clean Seas has been a happy accident. ‘It felt like we were setting something up for a couple of months, and after that it was just clinging on and seeing where this thing goes.’
While the original plan was always around individual engagement, Tom said that corporations and businesses quickly came to them with their Corporate Social Responsibility budgets and asked them to organise educational talks or beach clean events for their staff.
Then a Berlin-based condom maker got in touch. They’d done everything they could think of to operate sustainably – from convincing their natural latex farmers to increase biodiversity to paying them more operate Fair Trade to offsetting their carbon from their shipping – but at the end of the day, condoms have to be wrapped in plastic.
‘They reached out and said, “Listen, Tom, we would love to explore how we can commission Seven Clean Seas to remove the same quantity of plastic we use in our packaging in Malaysia from waters in Malaysia so that we can become plastic neutral’.”’ After the initial panic passed of agreeing to do something without having a clue how, Tom and his team set to work making it a reality and plastic offsetting was born.
‘We end up in this situation where we’re legally bound to clean the oceans, and we have the money to clean the oceans. It’s the perfect solution! It’s the first thing we’ve heard of that creates a mandate to clean the ocean.’
As the mandate to remove plastic from the environment scales up, that leads them to creating infrastructure projects to help them remove more plastic. And with 70% of plastic entering the ocean coming from rivers, that’s a natural place to start. The options on the market for this kind of clean up are incredibly expensive – out of reach in the towns and villages that Seven Clean Seas operates in.
The Marina Bay Sands hotel, noted for its sustainability, gave Seven Clean Seas a grant to find an affordable solution. They worked with a naval architect to develop a system that could capture hundreds of tonnes of plastic per year at a fraction of the traditional cost. The system will be manufactured and managed locally, creating jobs and ownership within communities.
While a lot of people around the world have been furloughed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the hospitality industry has been hit hard. In Indonesia, the furlough wage is negligible and people can be out of work for up to 48 days. Without access to education, training or other jobs, they’re left in dire circumstances.
‘What we’ve done is to go in and employ these people. They are in the hospitality industry, they understand the importance of preserving the natural environment, and we’re employing them to go out in teams of 22 and physically collect plastic from these locations. Do education with the local communities and local kids and make a huge social impact.’
One of the problems Tom and the team are keen to find a solution to is the informal waste management that operates in developing countries.
‘Modern waste management – even in England when you throw your stuff in the bin – a lot of the time that’s going to get exported and end up being taken over by the informal waste management. What we mean by this is people aren’t formally employed.’
All the things we take for granted – protected jobs, a steady wage, health care, paid holiday, protective gear – don’t exist for these people. And the majority of them are women and children, at risk of exploitation.
Seven Clean Seas want to set up a proper system that employs these people, giving them a decent wage, safe working conditions and a better quality of life.
When asked where he finds inspiration and draws hope, Tom said, ‘For me it’s the small wins, setting up a thousand small wins in a row and being happy with each one of them. When you achieve something you’re truly proud of, that’s a great feeling. That’s how you get addicted to it. Just enjoy the small steps and try not to think about the big bad world.’
‘Don’t feel powerless, particularly with what’s going on in the world. Just get out there, get involved with it.’
You can learn more about Seven Clean Seas and the incredible work they’re doing at https://sevencleanseas.com/