I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Alexander Nolte, Co-Founder of LANGBRETT and STOP! MICRO WASTE. After years of research and development, STOP! MICRO WASTE recently introduced their Guppy Friend bag to remove micro waste from synthetic fibers from the water supply. STOP! MICRO WASTE ran a Kickstarter campaign in late 2016 and provided a great overview of the initiative on the campaign page. The Guppy Friend bag is expected to be available for sale in the U.S. late May, 2017 on the Patagonia website and in Patagonia stores.
How did you and Oli first meet and how did the concept of Guppy Friend come to be? Oli and I both had our own agencies when we met in 2006 while working on a project together — mine was an innovation agency, his was a design agency. Building a brand was the last on our mind. LANGBRETT has grown from a group of surfers who shared experiences. That group grew over time and evolved into the LANGBRETT club.
Three years ago, we left our agencies and focus on LANGBRETT – with the same idealism from years ago: surf, skate and outdoor clothing and eco-innovations produced under socially and ecologically fair conditions. Our ideals revolved around nature and the shared strong desire to consume responsibly. For example, we strived to protect the environment with a shoe we developed which has a sole is that is 100% recycled and reusable. Oli had textile background. In 1990s, he experimented with organic cotton. This Trial and error with textiles was valuable in figuring out what’s right and what is wrong. We now have four stores in Germany.
Some of the products we sell from other companies contain synthetic fiber. We learned about the impact of micro waste from those synthetic fibers. When we met with marine activist Angelika Heckhausen, she told us that we were not only part of the solution, but part of problem. We couldn’t pretend we didn’t hear that, so we knew we had to do something. to stay true to our core and realized we need to find a solution.
We did a test and it was obvious that this was huge. We talked to many experts to understand more about the problem and came up with a hypothesis. We went to the beergarden and had a brainstorming session. We had some good ideas, but we knew that the bag wouldn’t be the only solution. We are currently developing other filter solutions, but we wanted to first bring the bag to market. The beauty of the bag is that it is now available, affordable and it does the job. Aside from helping with micro waste, it protects garments — even cotton items — so it makes sense to put them in the bag too.
It took quite some time to find the right solution. We needed a mesh that would let water and soap into bag, but prevent tiny microfibers from escaping and blocking the openings. We won an award at Europe’s biggest outdoor show. We thought “Why don’t we establish a non-profit and address this more holistically?” We ultimately came up with STOP! MICRO WASTE to inform people about smart use of plastic and pollution caused by microfibers. We are also looking to what needs to be done for textile re-engineering to prevent release of microfibers.
What is your most proud accomplishment so far? We are most proud of bringing awareness to this problem and changing people’s habits for the better. People are buying fewer and higher quality garments and washing them less frequently. Less importantly, but still something we are proud of is getting the bag out there.
We had an idea, discussed it over a beer and have come a long way — so long you wouldn’t even start if you knew what it takes. There are so many details: importing requirements, care labels, packaging and more. One early win I recall is an archipelago north of Norway that ordered alot of Guppy Friends. They needed synthetic fibers because of how cold it is there, however they are surrounded by ocean, so whatever they wash, it goes right into the ocean.
The Bag is meant to communicate the problem. We want to educate people that frivolous fashion is a waste. It is one of the most polluting industries. Chemicals like flame retardant additives, tremendous water waste, CO2 and microfiber issues all contribute to making it very bad for the environment. This initiative can help educate and can change habits. We want people to buy better. That is the biggest change we hope to trigger. That’s what makes us proud. That’s the point.
As recently as last year, the textile manufacturers we spoke with did not acknowledge the problem, but now they see that they have to act. Introducing Guppy Friend was especially hard because no product like this existed. We had to work through challenges optimizing the bag and getting a patent. It’s exciting, but it’s a journey, and we’re not at the end yet.
How did Patagonia hear about you?
We sell Patagoina products in all four of our stores, so when we have an innovation, we discuss it with them — that relationship was already in place. They were the first to know when we started brainstorming the idea of the Guppy Friend. We couldn’t finance the research and development on our own. The mesh is extremely expensive, largely because of the high standards for the material. Only a few companies are even able to produce it. One centimeter of fabric has 250 threads.
Another unexpected challenge was related to the fact that there was no category for this. For example, we needed to determine what kind of information was needed for packaging. There are also requirements for different regions, the scope is. We sell products to japan or us, but not to that extent.
Do you have any other innovations in the works?
Philip Ehrhorn who works with us invented an air bubble curtain. The curtain is put into a body of water to capture plastic in the water before it is turned into micro waste. Philip has created a prototype and is continuing research on the project. We are supporting him in this, but the research is his own project. Philip is still at university and we are also working with the university on research and development and will continue his own scientific examination of this. For example, he is learning wow does it impacts fish.
A tough challenge with garments made of recycled water bottles or other plastic is that it ends up in the water, but it’s the size of plankton once it becomes micro waste. Plankton is a cornerstone of the marine food chain, so micro waste has a tremendous impact up the food chain.
Have other organizations been supportive of your mission? We have had alot of interest. We have been fortunate to be in discussions with many NGOs such as Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, Plastic Soup Foundation and to collaborate with research institutes e.g. Fraunhofer Institut and the German Textile Research Center North-West (DTNW). These organizations have been great partners to test the bag and to discuss the topic of microfiber pollution.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs with ideas for environmentally friendly products? Don’t take any too much advice from others, try things and create your own learning curve. We need to have many initiatives to tackle this problem, so more initiatives are always welcome.