The Last Straw

Samantha Thian, the founder of social enterprise Seastainable, is helping to alleviate the problem of ocean plastic pollution, one straw at a time.

 

BY Alywin Chew

S

ince her first scuba-diving trip in Malaysia some 10 years ago, Samantha Thian has viewed the ocean as something much more than a vast expanse of water. Encountering marine life up close has opened her eyes to its beauty and vitality.

These days, however, the ocean has also become a source of purpose and fulfilment for the 25-year-old.

Thian aims to reduce the amount of plastic trash polluting the oceans. Since founding social enterprise Seastainable in January last year, she has been offering consumers more sustainable alternatives, such as reusable metal straws.

ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM THROUGH EDUCATION
Half of the profits earned from sales are channelled towards non-profit organisations that focus on marine conservation efforts.

The makings of Seastainable, explains Thian, can be traced back to five years ago, when she took time off from her studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS) to learn and get a deeper understanding about marine conservation at the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines in Bohol, a province in the Visayas region of the Philippines.

Seastainable’s founder, Samantha Thian, channels part of her firm’s profits from selling reusable straws and cutlery towards educating the local communities in the Philippines about marine conservation.

As a whale shark research assistant, the Singaporean had to swim in the ocean for up to two hours a day to collect data. The experience, she recalls, was not so much exhausting as it was life-changing.

“As I swam through large patches of garbage and thought about how they affected the helpless animals living in these once-pristine waters, my heart broke. It made me want to do more to tackle the issue of waste management,” she says.

After returning to NUS, Thian – who was then president of the university’s recreational diving club – made it a point to share her experience and educate her peers on ocean pollution.

But it was only in 2017, when she attended the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Sea and Earth Advocates Camp in Bohol, that she was inspired by fellow participants to take her passion for marine conservation to the next level. The gathering had brought her face to face with other environmentally conscious youth leaders who were keen to implement solutions that addressed ecological issues in the region.

She did not have to wait too long for an opportunity to follow her heart. During an internship with multinational firm Procter & Gamble, she suggested doing away with plastic straws for a corporate event. This was the moment that the idea for Seastainable struck her.

“I realised that using single-use products is a difficult habit to break because it is a part of our lifestyle,” she shares. “But if we can get people to start making the conscious decision to be greener, this transition can come about more naturally.

“Plastic straws are, after all, unnecessary. They are easy to give up and replace.”

ONE PRODUCT AT A TIME
With her goal of providing reusable household products, Thian set about searching for the right suppliers. But ensuring that her startup walked the talk about being environmentally conscious posed a challenge. For instance, she had to search for delivery services that used recyclable cardboard boxes to package her merchandise for shipments.

Yet, she says that the biggest test faced by Seastainable is not related to operational matters. Rather, it is convincing customers not to buy their straws unless they really have a need for it.

“Reusable items generally have a higher ecological cost than single-use disposable products. As such, individuals must ensure the consistent use of their products so that the ecological cost of creating the product offsets the accumulated ecological cost of using disposables,” she explains.

To that end, she has even included a note that reads “Please do not buy if you do not need one!” at the top of the products page on the Seastainable website. Paradoxical as it might sound, the eco-conscious venture is built on a strong objective inspired by the growing worldwide movement against single-use straws and plastic.

OVERSEAS AMBITIONS
Capitalising on the interest in sustainable lifestyle products, Seastainable also sells collapsible cups, cup holders and wheat boxes. Already, it seems that it has found a captive audience. In 2018, the startup managed to contribute more than $15,000 to various marine conservationrelated beneficiaries, including the Philippines-based Project Balod and Save Philippine Seas.

Donations from the sale of Seastainable products have gone towards educating locals on marine conservation. Save Philippine Seas, for instance, was able to bring 60 youths from coastal communities in Malapascua, Cebu, on a snorkelling trip.

Seastainable also helped to sponsor the registration fees for their A-B-Seas Camps, which gathered Filipinos from all walks of life to participate in workshops and underwater activities that enabled them to learn about marine conservation.

“Having a personal experience with marine life is important when it comes to educating and empowering anyone to conserve our ocean. The more people learn about why we should be protecting our seas as well as marine life, the more they will be influenced to take action,” says Gabrielle Paloma from Save Philippine Seas.

“ USING SINGLE-USE PRODUCTS IS A DIFFICULT HABIT TO BREAK BECAUSE IT IS A PART OF OUR LIFESTYLE. BUT IF WE CAN GET PEOPLE TO START MAKING THE CONSCIOUS DECISION TO BE GREENER, THIS TRANSITION CAN COME ABOUT MORE NATURALLY.

LESSONS FROM CROSS COLLABORATION
Thian’s passion project has done more than help others learn the importance of marine conservation. She has also learnt valuable lessons, including how to be more driven, from collaborating with her overseas partners.

“I’ve found that Filipinos are more willing to take matters into their own hands, galvanise their communities, and push for positive change. It’s quite amazing that they aren’t afraid of uncertainty or making mistakes. They are doers – they see a problem, think of an effective solution, and just do it,” she says.

“I find that I have a tendency to overthink the consequences and I fear the unknown. Many times, this is what stops me from working on personal projects that I might find interesting.”

In turn, her Filipino partners have managed to gain new cultural insights through their work together. “Singaporeans are great planners. They’re efficient and pay close attention to details.” says Paloma.

In just one year, Seastainble has managed to launch 14 conservation projects along with a grant programme that provides financial support to regional projects focused on sustainability and conservation. These include Kidlikasan: Mangrove Revolution, a programme that aims to seed 700 mangrove flora and rehabilitate damaged mangroves in the Philippines over two years.

“The Seastainable team’s strong work ethic is something that we can all learn from. Our ocean needs urgent care. And if we want a better future for our environment, we need to be more efficient in executing our actions.”

Looking ahead, Thian says that Seastainable is planning on supporting more marine conservation projects through education and hands-on learning in Southeast Asia.

“We only have one earth and it is our responsibility to care for it. I believe there is a better way to live our lives without compromising on the ability of our future generations, so why not consciously choose better?” she concludes.

SEA CHANGE

8.3 billion 5.25 trillion 8 million 51 trillion 10 river systems worldwide
tonnes of plastic – the weight of roughly 47 million blue whales – have been produced in the past 70 years
Science Advances, 2017
pieces of plastic debris are believed to be in the ocean
National Geographic, 2015
metric tonnes of plastic wind up in our oceans each year. That’s enough trash to cover every foot of coastline around the world.
Science Advances, 2017
microplastic particles are found in the oceans today – that’s 500 times more than the stars in our galaxy.
UN News, 2017
– of which eight are in Asia – carry 90% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean.
World Economic Forum, 2018
 


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