Body surfing on ocean plastic
In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Rikki Gilbey of WAW Handplanes based in Sydney, Australia. Rikki loved body surfing, and he realised that he could enjoy it even more with the handplanes that he made.
Before Rikki knew it, he was in business – first making his products from wood and later taking on the huge challenge of creating an entire supply chain just so that he could make his handplanes from ocean plastic.
That three year project resulted in a National Geographic award and now he has even bigger aspirations ahead.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Rikki Gilbey of WAW Handplanes.
You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.
Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:
Carbon Neutral Charity Fund
Eco Barge Clean Seas
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020
This transcript has been modified for clarity.
T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
R: Rikki Gilbey, Founder of WAW Handplanes
T: Ricky, welcome to the show.
R: It’s great to be here, Tammy.
T: I first heard about your business through Louise Hardman of Plastic Collective. She was talking about one of the products that you’d done with Eco Barge. And I am very curious about your product called the WAW Handplane. Could you tell us a little bit more about what that is and how people use it in surfing?
What is a handplane?
R: Yeah, of course. So, body surfing handplane is essentially like a mini surfboard for your hand. And its main goal is to provide lift when your body surfing. So, it brings your body up onto the water’s surface to reduce your drag making it much easier to surf, to go faster right away for longer and makes the experience that much more fun.
T: Is this a popular sport in Australia?
R: It used to be a popular sport in Australia. Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was all that anybody ever used to do surfing wise. Everybody used to bodysurf, but then traditional surfing, as we know it, took over and surfboards became smaller and smaller, and people just started surfing. Body surfing kind of went underground for a little while.
R: But in the last decade or so, especially in the last five or six years, it’s really seen a big comeback here in Australia and noticeably overseas too – California, Europe, Japan. It’s all kind of popping back up again. I think people were just remembering how pure and simple it is to go body surfing.
T: I didn’t grow up on the ocean, but I have done a bit of surfing and I’ve done a little bit of body surfing. I have to say, it’s not that easy to do. I would suspect that your handplane would make it easier for people like me, though.
R: That’s the idea. So, it provides you with a surface area that you can kind of lean down into as you catch a wave and it just reduces your drag. So, it makes it much easier to catch the wave and then the fun begins.
T: When did you start thinking about making handplanes yourself?
R: For me, body surfing and hand planes came, excuse the pun, but hand-in-hand. They came together. I was working in a surf store part-time (Patagonia). And we had these handplanes come in from America.
R: As a surfer myself, I loved the concept of them. But I was a bit of a sceptic as to whether they would actually make much difference. So, I want to give them a go. The ones that we had come in from the surf store were $250 and something so small I thought I’d rather just try to make one myself as a carpenter by trade. I thought I’ll just make some out of wood. I made my first one, took it down to the beach and had a body surfing session. And yes, it just completely blew me away.
R: And so from that moment, I just progressively became more and more of a body surfer and did more and more body surfing and the handplanes came along with it. And then as soon as people started gaining interest in the handplanes as well, I thought of it as a business opportunity.
Turning a hobby into a business
T: Now, what came first? Did you have people asking you for the handplane first, or did you start offering it first to the market?
R: It definitely came from my love of the handplanes. After taking a few friends out to give them a spin and seeing the smiles on their faces after using them, I made up a bunch of boards. I think I made 18 boards in my first batch and then applied to go to a local market down at the beach at Manly Markets in Sydney. And on the first day, I sold every single board.
R: I think I was selling them for about $70 or $80 each at that time, and I sold every single one. And that really kind of inspired me thinking that, yes, people were interested in this type of thing. The sport itself is really, really fun. It’s really approachable for anyone who can swim, they can body surf. And people liked the product. So, yeah, the business kind of came from me offering it in the first place and then realising its potential.
T: That was definitely a good way to do some market research, as well.
T: Did the people see it and instantly understand what it was used for?
R: No, you get many comments with a handplane. Is this for your feet. Are they a fancy cheese board? Are they decoration? So, no. But once you talk about the concept of body surfing, that gets most people hooked in the first place to be honest – the simplicity and the fun of body surfing and then the aesthetic of the product itself kind of adds to the whole situation as well.
T: And so when did you start making the product to sell?
R: So, this was all back in 2014 when we launched the company, and that’s when I went to the markets for the first time with our first batch in 2014. And yeah, we started with all of the timber handplanes from thereon.
An eco-friendly business from the beginning
T: Now, what’s interesting about your company is that from the very, very beginning, it seems like you were concerned about the sustainability, even with the timber version of it. Do you want to talk about your “One handplane, One tree” program that you started?
R: Yes, absolutely. From the get go, I was very much thinking that if I was going to start a company, I wanted that company to be as sustainable as possible, especially if it was going to be a product based company. So, from the beginning, I brainstormed some ideas as to how a hand plane company can give back and can do something good in the world.
R: And as soon as I started to manufacture more of the boards, I realised that I was having to obviously buy more and more timber and source more and more reclaimed timber. And then as the reclaimed timber started to run a little low and I started to go for some more sustainable plantation timber, I realised I was starting to take trees. I was starting to buy timber that was from a tree, from a plantation that was cut down.
R: And so to combat that, I thought, “Well, why not? Let’s plant a tree for every board that we sell.” When we take a tree from a plantation, we get about 150 handplanes out of each tree. And with every handplane that we sell and sold, we planted one tree for that one. So, for every one tree that we took, we’d planted 150 trees in its place.
R: So that started from the very beginning, the “One handplane, One tree” policy. And we planted that through the Carbon Neutral Charity Fund, which is an organisation here in Australia that plant their trees in rehabilitated farmland, bird habitat and kind of carbon sinks and so forth.
Handplanes from ocean plastic
T: Are you still manufacturing here in Australia.
R: The timber ones, we do outsource them overseas now, only recently back in 2018. But our latest model, the Bad Fish Ocean Plastics model, that is made here in Australia.
T: Yeah. Let’s talk about that a little bit more, because that’s actually the product that caught my attention. In fact, after I did some research, I realised that we have a common contact with Mark Yates over at Replas.
R: Yeah, right.
T: He’s been a guest on this show before, too. So, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your Bad Fish handplane?
R: Where do I start? So, the Bad Fish concept came up in 2016 – the idea of making handplanes out of recycled plastics. When I came up with the idea, in all honesty, I thought it was going to be quite easy. I thought I’d just be able to purchase recycled plastic shred and buy a mould and manufacture the boards out of recycled plastics.
R: But as we learned along the way, there were many, many hurdles, many setbacks. I soon realised that no one else in Australia was doing what I was trying to do. And so, it inevitably meant that we had to set up an entire supply chain ourselves for the ocean material which led us all the way down the line – three years later, to the final launch of the Bad Fish.
Sourcing ocean plastic
T: Let’s break this down to a little bit more detail here. When we talk about the supply chain, you did mention ocean waste, where is that sourced from.
R: The beginnings of the ocean plastic that’s in our hand planes comes from the Great Barrier Reef here in Australia. It is collected by a group called Eco Barge Clean Seas based up in the Whitsundays. They have a barge where they go out to all of the islands around the Great Barrier Reef within their reach and clean the beaches and coastline of those islands of ocean debris.
R: They have a facility back in the Whitsundays where they then sort and process that material. We developed a system with them to sort, wash and shred the material down to a grade that is then clean and pure enough that can be then put through an injection moulding machine.
R: And the way that they shred it is through Louise Hardman’s machine – The Plastic Collective, the Shruder. So, they have one of those machines in their facility. Before it goes through the shredder, they do have to sorted into the types of plastic that we can use and then wash it thoroughly and then shred it down. And there were a few hurdles in amongst all of that as well.
T: That’s not an easy thing to do, especially with ocean plastic, a lot of it’s deteriorated.
R: Correct. Yes.
T: For a lot of people in fact, the only thing that they will recycle from ocean plastic is nylon nets because of that.
R: Yes. So, my original plan was to make the boards out of PET – plastic bottles – the thing that I hate the most in the world when I see them just wash up on the beaches. They seem to be everywhere. And so that was my initial plan. I had no background in plastics recycling or even plastics manufacturing at the beginning. So, I was quite naive walking into the whole project.
R: But after doing some research into PET, I realised it was going to be far too expensive and difficult to recycle PET from plastic bottles. There are lots of hurdles when injection moulding PET that we found out, and the machinery and moulds that are required for that were well beyond our financial scope.
R: So, then my next option was to look at nylon. As you mentioned, nylon is quite readily recycled. There are a few companies that do recycle fishing nets and that one thing which strongly appealed to me. But the issue with nylon that we faced is nylon sinks. So, fishing net, fishing line, all that stuff sinks in the ocean. And I was intending to make a product that is to be used back in the ocean for fun. And it would be my worst nightmare if it was to come off and get lost again back in the ocean. So, nylon, without adding too much extra stuff to it would have sunk.
R: Again, that then was scratched out. Which left us with what is actually the majority of plastics that wash up on the beaches. So, it’s all your HDPE, your high-density polyethylene and your polypropylene and some low-density polyethylene as well.
T: So, basically these are what? Milk bottles, bottle caps?
R: Yeah, bottle caps and shampoo bottles. Along the Great Barrier Reef, they get a lot of fishing boat waste – so like oil cartons, food packaging, plastic bags, buckets and spades, all that kind of extra stuff. So essentially it is most of what you would find if you’re walking along a beach and the plastics washed up. The reason it’s washed up on the beach generally is because it floats. So, most of what washes up, we can actually use.
T: Especially with a product that needs to float.
R: Exactly right.
T: Once you figured out that you can use this. You found a source of the ocean plastic. What did you do next?
First failed trial with ocean plastic
R: Just to backtrack a little bit, before we found Eco Barge, we had about 12 months of trying to locate a facility that would process ocean waste on mass. I wanted to make this a commercially viable business. So, I looked around for people in the industry of plastics recycling and plastics manufacturing and tried to find a company that would process the material for us on an industrial scale. And that didn’t really work.
R: We did actually find one company who was willing to attempt to process ocean waste for us here in Australia. But the issue was for them is they needed a very large amount of waste to put it through their processing machinery to actually clean and shred it down. And so we needed a minimum of about 1800 kilos of ocean waste to conduct that trial.
R: Then the next hurdle I found after that was no one was storing the ocean waste. Here in Australia, there is no use for it. No one was stockpiling it after it’s been collected and cleaned from the beaches. So, it is all ultimately sent to landfill, most of which.
R: And then I found an organisation here in Australia called Tangaroa Blue, and they had actually been stockpiling some of the waste that they’d been collecting from far north Queensland. And they had about 1500 kilos of this waste. With that, I organised for that to be sent down to this facility here in New South Wales where I am based, to try to be processed.
R: But the issue was once it all landed and got unpacked. This stuff had sat on the beaches for years. Some of it was very, very highly degraded material. The beaches up in Far North Queensland are not populated. And so this stuff had just been lying there for forever and ever. So, as soon as it hit any sort of industrial machinery, it essentially turned to dust.
R: There wasn’t much that we could do with it. That whole process took nearly 12 months to go through that and try and convince people to try it and get things transported and then ultimately ended in a big fail.
T: Was it a costly fail other than time?
R: I think I probably put no more than about AU$5000 into that initial trial. But, it was quite costly for me, as I am running my own business, and the handplane was my only and main income and we self-funded the whole project. So, although not (costly) in the grand scheme of things, it was still a blow for us for sure.
R: But having attended lots of sustainability and plastics recycling conferences and events, I got to know Louise Hardman quite well during that process and was aware of the machines and stuff that she was making and creating. So, then when we hit this hurdle, I reached back out to Louise and said, “Look, is there any way that we can get some of this material done through some of your machines?”
R: Then she advised me to get in touch with the Eco Barge Clean Seas. So, it was through her contact. They had recently acquired one of her Shruder machines, which had been funded by Coca-Cola Amatil.
R: And with that, I then connected up with Eco Barge, talked to them about what we were after, and they jumped at the chance. For them, it was heartbreaking to go and clean all of these beautiful islands of waste and then take it back and then send that waste directly to landfill. So, going from one environment to another, obviously better out of the ocean, but still just going into a hole in the ground.
R: When I said, “Let’s use it, let’s turn it into something good, something fun that people can use back in the ocean.” They loved the idea. So, it was from then our relationship grew and we developed a really nice system for cleaning and processing that waste.
Finding a manufacturer willing to use ocean plastic
T: OK. So now you have a raw material you can work with that you got from Eco Barge that’s sorted from the ocean. And then what was the next step?
R: The next step was then to find a manufacturer who was willing to use that shredded material in their machines. We managed to partner with Replas, who are Australia’s largest recycler of post-consumer waste, and now they are manufacturer here.
T: As I said, Mark Yates has been on the show before, and certainly he has some very innovative ways to take what other people would consider useless waste and turn it into products. So, I think he and a few other people have had to build machines specifically to do this. So, it’s great that you’re able to partner with him to do that.
T: How long did it take you from start to finish – from idea to actually having a finished product you could sell?
R: Two and a half years.
R: My naive self, back in 2016 when I started it thought, “Oh, well, it doesn’t take long to injection mould things. It will be done in a few months. I’ll launched this summer. As it turned out, there is no other company that we’re aware of doing this in Australia, using Australian waste, recycling it here in Australia and manufacturing it here in Australia.
R: And so just the fact that we had to create this supply chain along the way really kind of slowed the whole process down. But it is something now that we are extremely proud of and happy to be able to say that we’ve done it.
T: Yeah, for sure. And you should be.
R: Thank you.
More about Rikki
T: Rikki, I want to go back a little bit and talk about you for a moment.
T: What made you so interested in sustainability side of business? Because you could have easily made handplanes with plastic. You could have easily done so with a wood. But you certainly have taken more of an eco-friendly way of doing it, which has cost you money to do it that way, and it’s obviously a lot of time. So, what’s may do so concerned about the environment to go this route?
R: I would just never be able to do it any other way. Everything has to be something that will either not impact or positively impact the planet. As someone who grew up on the coast of England in Devon in the UK, I grew up by the sea. I saw the impacts of waste firsthand. I moved to Australia in 2010 and fell in love with the ocean even more and got really into my surfing and just the environment in general.
R: I spend as much time as I possibly can in the outdoors, whether it’s camping or in the ocean. And so just being personally aware of the impact of what people were doing, especially in mass production and manufacturing and plastics. And so that’s something that’s always just kind of angered me about the way that the world is run.
R: And so, when I decided to start a product-based business, I was just adamant from the start that I was not going to contribute to that problem with the work that I was doing. And obviously, just with the rise of knowledge and science around kind of our impact on the planet. It just seems normal and expected that we should all be taking this extra step to make things and do things in the most environmentally aware fashion as possible.
From side hustle to full time employment
T: So this is taken you to where you are now. You did mention earlier that you’re a carpenter. You work with WAW – are you doing that specifically as a full-time job? Or is it just a side hustle for you?
R: WAW Handplanes is my full time job. We launched in 2014, and then I went full time on it in 2016. When I first started the Bad Fish recycled ocean plastics project, I realised that if I was going to make this company work and especially this project work, I needed to put all of my time into. It was very time consuming, very passion driven. So, I was very happy to put a lot of time into it.
R: It was a struggle for the first year or two to make it all work. But I would never have being able to get to where we are now without having made that leap and put the time in it at that time.
The straps are also eco-friendly
T: So now that you have two major products, I don’t think we mentioned the fact that even the strap is – I think it’s recycled neoprene. Is that right?
R: Our straps for the handplanes, they’re made out of you Yulex Pure, which is a plant based bio rubber. So, it’s all completely plant based, biodegradable over time. And the Velcro on our straps is all recycled plastic bottles as well.
T: So the entire product that we’ve made is sustainable in some degree?
Future plans for WAW
T: What are your future plans for the business and future product lines?
R: So, the kind of blessing and the curse of plastics manufacturing is it’s very quick and easy once you get the moulds and stuff set up. So, now that we have a supply chain set up and we can actually kind of make whatever plastic products that we want to. So definitely looking at expanding our product line, going into new markets, using recycled ocean plastics.
R: I would love to establish yes supply to other companies who were willing and wanting to make stuff using this waste material – so being able to supply bigger organisations with it. And in order to do that, we would need to expand the processing side of what we’re doing with Eco Barge. To do that, we would like to try to modularise the system that they have created into something that can be transferable and deployed elsewhere.
R: Hopefully (it will be) something that would fit into some sort of container sized space that then be deployed at councils and beach clean-up groups around Australia and the world – similar to kind of Louise’s concept and just give power to the local people to collect and process their waste and provide them with a economical output that will then be bought by companies like us.
R: So definitely looking to expand in that sector. But my heart will lie with body surfing. And so, we’ll also be sticking with that and seeing if we can put into any new products into that industry as well.
T: Well, certainly the program work that Louisa started is huge.
T: And it would be interesting to see how the buyers of this plastic can contribute to that supply chain as she sets up rural communities that have no waste management system. She puts in place an opportunity for them to sell the shred. So, yeah, it will be really interesting for companies like yourself to see if you can create a demand for it which is obviously the most important part of it recycle a product, it’s not completely recycled until you actually do something with it, right?
R: Well, exactly right. I think there is a kind of misconception here in Australia that a lot of people are recyclers, and a lot of people do great work in that they sort out their rubbish and put it into a recycling bin. But in my opinion,
“You’re not a true recycler until you buy it at the other end as well, to create that circular loop.”
Advice or Request for Listeners
T: Ricky, do you have any advice or requests for our listeners if you are starting a business?
R: If you are starting a business,
“ I think having sustainability in mind from the get go and having an issue in this world that you would like to try to solve or help – having that in mind when you start a business and making all of your business decisions around that issue or that problem and focussing initiatives on that – down the line, you’re going to be leagues above of anyone in business who’s your competition who’s just in it for the profit? So make the effort to do good, and you will be rewarded in the long run. And if it’s something you’re passionate about, just don’t give up.”
R: When I first started WAW, someone once told me that the businesses that don’t make it in the first five years are those that give up, which is true. There’s so many ways, so many times along the way when you’re starting a business where things are seemingly too hard and too difficult and too expensive. Those that succeed are the ones that don’t give up.
R: We hit so many hurdles with this plastics project of ours. And I pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed and refused to give up along the way. And it rewarded us in the end. And, you know, we’ve recently just won a big competition with the National Geographic for the Bad Fish. And so getting that kind of global recognition is incredible and it’s all just through passion and perseverance.
T: Congratulations on that award.
R: Thank you.
T: And well deserved. Well deserved after all the things you’ve had to go through just to make that one product.
Contacting WAW and Rikki
T: If our listeners wanted to contact you or are maybe purchase one of your products, what’s the best way to do that?
R: You can check us out on our website, which is wawhandplanes.com.au.
R: You can email me Rikki@wawhandplanes.com.au. Or you can follow us on Facebook or Instagram under the same handle.
T: I’ll make sure to put all those links into our show notes and into the transcript so that people can easily find it.
T: Ricky, thank you for all the work you’ve done. It’s clear that you have a heart for sustainability and for surfing in the ocean. But the fact that you’ve gone through so much trouble to try to make a new product out of ocean waste is just a testament to how large that passion is.
T: A lot of people, as you say, would have given up long before they got to the final product. So, congratulations on doing that. But also thank you for caring so much about the environment and also creating a template for what other businesses can do if they’re really serious about trying to use ocean waste as one of their materials for their products.
T: So, congratulations on doing that, and thank you for your efforts.
R: Thank you very much. Very much appreciated.