A story about protecting the oceans, and growing your business: meet Cleanhub

December 7, 2021

Demonstrating your commitment to become a better brand can be challenging during a time where minimizing your environmental impact REALLY matters. Our Unicorns Cleanhub would like to introduce you to the story behind their anti-greenwashing guarantee.

Hi, we are Cleanhub and this is our founders’ story - how to save the oceans from plastic pollution?

We visited projects funded by large multinationals that had more than questionable working environments, we went to landfills guarded by armed forces, and a waste-to-energy plant that was still under construction. We spoke to waste pickers roaming landfills collecting anything of value to sell, talked to farmers that had lost 70% of their livestock because of contaminated water from illegal landfills; met with landfill owners; NGOs; government officials; small recycling businesses; shady scrap dealers, and scientists who were testing self-built chemical recycling plants in their backyard. We saw children walking barefoot over scrap.

But we also met a lot of people that care deeply for our environment and want to be part of the solution.  

And this is where the story of CleanHub started.

The beginning

Florin and I - the founders of CleanHub were working for a tech start-up in Zurich. Our privileged lives there allowed us to travel the world. The main activities on these trips? Sailing, surfing, or just enjoying a cold drink on one of the beautiful beaches of Southeast Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

That’s where we first encountered the problem of plastic pollution. It was everywhere. 

This was the point when we decided that we wanted to dedicate our working lives to protecting and preserving the oceans every day.

What followed was a period of extensive research, joining conferences on the circular economy, gatherings of plastic recyclers, lobby meetings of waste-to-energy companies, onsite visits, and more. Finally, we concluded: if we want to solve the plastic pollution dilemma, we need to understand the situation where plastic pollution is at its worst: Southern Asia.

The research trip

Three weeks later, we were on a plane to India. We stayed with a local family, and to our surprise, nobody knew what was happening to the waste in their bin. So, we decided to follow their waste bag. We soon ended up at a dumpsite where waste was put on agricultural land without any protection or treatment, and then set on fire, to reduce its volume. 

And so the threat to the environment and people’s health starts way before plastic enters the oceans. We saw people living and raising families in landfills, waste villages where people search through the waste looking for anything that they can sell. 

A huge informal sector exists, with waste collectors working under inhumane conditions on unsecured landfills collecting plastic bottles and other recyclable plastics that have value, and can be turned into new products by hundreds of small recycling companies.

The main problem

What isn’t collected are foils, contaminated plastic packaging, and multi-layer packaging, like chip packets, sauce sachets, etc. This material is either impossible to recycle or there is no demand from the market for the products. That means:

Scenario 1: It is openly burned in small backyard fires or landfills.

Scenario 2: It is carried away into nature by the monsoon or strong winds. The waste clogs up the sewage systems and passes through rivers until it finally ends up in the oceans where more than 90% sinks into depths from where it will never be recovered.

We were faced with stark reality. It was now very clear that recycling alone was not enough. 

If the trip taught us one thing, it was that nothing of value will be thrown away. And that also formed the basis for our solution. 

The way out - building an economy where plastic is too valuable to waste

So, our idea was to build an equal economy for the non-recyclable plastic that isn’t currently collected in Asia because it has no value. We asked recycling companies if they would sell us their rejected material that they can’t recycle and asked waste pickers if they would collect the material that they usually left behind if we paid them a fixed price per kilogram.

The answer was yes.

Then, we faced a new problem: What to do with the waste? And how to finance the collection and disposal?

Back in Europe, we asked large consumer goods companies: if we offer you an environmental service by removing plastic from the environment and safely disposing of it, will you pay the bill?

The answer was: Yes.

Followed by a whole lot of ‘buts’:

But…how do you make sure that the plastic is collected safely?

But…how do you make sure that the plastic is disposed of properly?

But…how do I make sure that you actually perform your service?

Our solution

Back in India, we scouted for local waste collection companies that we could trust with their operations. Where we could be sure that work environments were safe, that no child labour was in place, and no one was forced to work. And we contracted them to collect the non-recyclable plastics for us.

First but: check.

Next, we spoke to Geocycle, the waste management company of Holcim, the largest cement manufacturing company in the world. They can utilize plastic waste in their production process, a technology called co-processing. Using the non-recyclable plastic waste as fuel recovers the energy of the waste and replaces coal and gas as fuel. Dust, soil, and other mineral contaminants in the waste stream are recycled into new cement. They immediately offered their help.

Second but: check.

Finally, Florin built an entire software that tracks each step of the disposal process. With our digital platform, we were now able to deliver the proof of work that the material has been collected and disposed of properly.

Third but: check.

Leading the path for plastic neutrality

After 18 months in business, we now can process more than the 11 million tonnes of plastic waste that enter our oceans every year and have more than 100 customers who want to be part of the solution to solve the ocean plastic dilemma.

To date, we have recovered more than 500 tonnes of plastic waste that would otherwise be floating around in our oceans by now.

What we now need are more brands to take responsibility and become plastic neutral with us.