Sourced from the Sea

How we’re turning salvaged oyster farming trays into recycled ANIÁN buttons.

Photography by: Taylor Burk

On a cold November morning, a group of workers led by the Ocean Legacy Foundation and the BC Shellfish Growers Association were gathered at tideline in Baynes Sound, helping load bags of beach debris onto a 35-foot boat. The ocean was sunlit and sparkling, a short respite between fall storms helping ease the hard work of a coastal cleanup not far north of ANIÁN HQ.

Like the rest of the Salish Sea—with its forest-fed, nutrient-rich waters cradling salmon runs, herring spawns, orca pods and an incredible array of other marine life—the long passage that separates Vancouver Island from Denman Island is still an important source of sustenance for those who live on its shores. But it’s not as unspoiled as it once was, with an ecosystem stressed and depleted by a century-plus of commercial fishing and coastal development.

One of the most urgent environmental challenges in Baynes Sound, as for every coastline on Earth, is plastic pollution. Though some of the plastic arrives from afar, ushered in by winds and tides, a significant amount is generated by local industry—including shellfish farming, an otherwise low-impact form of aquaculture that has thrived in these waters for decades.

By some estimates, almost half of British Columbia’s farmed oysters are grown in Baynes Sound, and as the cleanup crew worked their way through the intertidal zone, they kept a close eye out for the black plastic oyster trays that sometimes break loose from farms and wash ashore. Collected from shorelines or diverted from landfill, these trays at their end-of-life are now serving as a source material for the new 100% recycled buttons on our men’s and women’s Denman Shirts.

“These trays are used to grow oysters out in the ocean,” explains Chloe Dubois, the co-founder and executive director of the Ocean Legacy Foundation, a non-profit that helps coordinate cleanup and restoration work in Canadian waters.

“They’re stacked with floatation, and flipped every so often as the oysters grow. But they have a lifespan on them, and after a certain amount of time they either break or get discontinued for use. Sometimes, when storms come through, they can end up as leakage, which means they get away from the farm and are loose in the environment.”

The Ocean Legacy Foundation, or OLF, is dedicated to fighting the crisis of plastic pollution, with a scope of work that ranges from shoreline, derelict vessel and derelict aquaculture cleanups to policy work, education and finding new ways to re-use and recycle ocean plastics. They’re working to create new solutions to systemic problems, in much the same way that all of us at ANIÁN are working to solve many of the problems in the outdoor and fashion industries.

“We share a lot of values with Ocean Legacy,” says ANIÁN founder Paul Long. “About four years ago I had this dream of making shopping bags out of ghost nets, and we’ve been in conversation with them ever since. We’ve been trying to eliminate as much virgin material as possible from our clothing, and virgin plastic has always been there in the buttons. So it was just a matter of making the connection that so much of the debris that washes up could be recycled, and then starting to figure out possible uses.”

“It’s similar to what we do with post-consumer textiles,” Paul continues, “in terms of looking at something and seeing that we can give it a new purpose to keep it out of the landfill. Almost every beach you ever go to is littered with plastic, so how could we think creatively to help solve the problem, and maybe use our business as a positive?”

Just because something’s recycled, however, doesn’t automatically make it a better product. The quality needs to be there, and the durability and appearance too.

“I’m definitely not a chemical engineer,” Paul laughs, “so I had no idea what was needed in terms of the exact materials and processing. The R&D has been a long go; I think almost two years since I reached out to Chloe and asked for samples. Thankfully, they’re really good with the technical side of things. Some of the types of plastic weren’t strong enough or didn’t work for other reasons, but we discovered that the oyster baskets worked really well. After a bunch of testing, and a lot of back and forth with our suppliers, we got buttons going that we were really happy with.”

“You don’t even notice the difference,” he says, “which is really the whole point. Less impact doesn’t have to be directly noticeable. For us, there are three great aspects to this project—we help clean our home coast, we get to do something useful with these discarded oyster trays, and we get to use recycled plastic in place of new. And all that brings us closer to our goal of full circularity.”

It takes collaboration and creativity to address complex problems, and as Chloe notes, those qualities are key when it comes to mitigating the pollution problem in Baynes Sound and beyond.

“There are a lot of shellfish growers that have really great practices,” she says, “and the last thing they want to see is their gear ending up in the environment. Everyone across the board can agree that plastic pollution shouldn’t exist, so we’re doing our best to help with best practices.”

“Before our program came along, the majority of the oyster trays were headed for the landfill. But now we can divert them into our depot program, which allows the trays to get collected in a more formal waste management process at the end of their life. Then the material can be re-used, and these smaller rural communities don’t get stuck with all this stuff entering their landfills. We’ve been experimenting and developing our recycling technology for a number of years, and now we have this full-fledged facility where we focus on problematic materials that nobody else wants to touch.”

Since its founding, the Ocean Legacy Foundation has removed about 3 million pounds of discarded material from the environment, and diverted another 2.5 million pounds from landfills. Each season, the group collects roughly 500 to 600 tons—no small matter when it’s done mostly by hand.

“The folks who do the work are badass,” recounts Taylor Burk, who shot the photos in this story. “It’s a mix of volunteers and workers, and all of them are so passionate about the oceans and their communities. Seeing them come together to make a difference day in and day out is pretty admirable. It’s tedious and laborious, and not for everybody. It definitely takes a certain type of person to do it.”

Though he’d been with OLF on a few other cleanups in the past, Taylor was still struck by how much discarded material was in the water.

“I didn’t quite realize the extent. In just a few hours we were filling these huge sacks with debris, and that’s just one small stretch of coast. We went back to Ocean Legacy’s sorting facility in Cumberland afterwards, and you could see just how much they’ve compiled. The amount that was stacked there was pretty shocking.”

As Chloe points out, there’s an endless supply of marine debris at the moment. “But that’s why we exist, because there’s a need. Hopefully cleanups won’t be needed one day, but for the time being, we can be part of implementing better design and better practices so these materials can have more value as part of the circular economy.”

In truth, a project like this is a drop in the ocean when it comes to solving the problem of plastic pollution. But as a brand dedicated to circular principles, recycling oyster baskets into handsome ANIÁN buttons is a satisfying thing. And happily, we’re starting to get to a size where we feel like we’re able to make a difference.

“Gathering all these plastics is important,” Paul says, “but if you don’t have any application for them, you’re just moving garbage from one place to another. It’s great that ANIÁN now has the ability to use some of it and help solve problems locally, instead of the supply chain being offshored. And ideally, the more we all understand about our food, our clothing and our consumption, the better we can all be with our choices. One thing we’ve really learned on our journey as a company is to never underestimate the impact or inspiration your actions can have.”

For Ocean Legacy, this button project was an example of good things that happen when companies are willing to work outside the norm.

“Partnerships like this one with ANIÁN are critical,” says Chloe, “because it’s only with brands that are willing to invest in recycled content that we can create a market to use these materials again. This was such a shining example of local capacity—kind of a 100 mile diet of recycling. It’s amazing what communities can do when we come up with solutions that are going to work."

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