How one man is pushing back the tide on ocean plastic

“If the oceans die, we die.” Cyrill Gutsch takes no time getting to the point, a trait that makes him irresistibly quotable. The creative activist is the founder of Parley for the Oceans, a collaborative platform created in response to one of the biggest environmental challenges of our lifetime – the death of our oceans. 

What you will learn from reading this article:

  • Why the arts help us to create a sustainable future
  • How much plastic ends up in the oceans
  • Why the future of the planet is dependent on life under water

With his long hair and statement glasses, Gutsch deftly bridges the arts with the environmental community he now finds himself amongst. For the uninitiated, his impassioned take on the devastating consequences of ocean plastic leaves no one in doubt as to the momentous task ahead to save the world’s marine biodiversity.

Around eight million metric tons of plastic enters our oceans every year, from 192 coastal countries. In fact, every single piece of plastic we have ever created, still exists. Gutsch brings these sobering facts to life with reference to some of the most tragic images that illustrate the war on plastic, such as sea turtles growing up with 6-pack beer holders around their necks, and the weathered remains of seabirds with guts packed with trash.

It can feel all too easy to throw our hands up in despair, but Gutsch is quick to remind us that “there is opportunity in every failure”. His approach is captured in what he calls his “super-simple strategy – avoid, intercept, redesign.” Or AIR, for short. It’s a neat way of pulling focus on outcomes, through education, communication, research and development, and direct action. Oh, and he’s renamed sustainability – we’re all calling it “eco-innovation” now.

Gutsch’s passion ignited the Virgin Disruptors crowd, and before long everyone was talking about how they would reduce their use of plastic. In case you missed it, here are some of his standout lines on beating ocean plastic:

1. “I didn’t know there was a need in me to go environmental.”

Until he met Captain Paul Watson, the Canadian environmental activist detained in Germany for blocking whaling ships, in 2012. This prompted two major realisations. “Firstly, what impact one person can have, and how many ripples you cause. And secondly, that the oceans are under such threat, and I never heard about it.” Prior to this, Gutsch says, he felt “super-useless” and cynical about the role that his industry – branding and creative content – could do for the world. “People don’t like to be confronted with darkness”, he says, but sometimes it’s necessary to take people to the darkest place before lighting the way forward.

2. “Behind every environmental problem there is a faulty business model, and it’s up to the creative community to change that.”

Gutsch is emphatic about the role the arts play in creating a sustainable future. Parley for the Oceans has a community which is centred by the creative industries – a feature which was well played out in their partnership with Adidas to create a limited edition trainer made from repurposed ocean plastic. “People come to creative spaces with an open mind, they expect to be surprised”, Gutsch says, adding, “art has that ability to open up, to change the view on things, to provoke. It is a very exclusive tool, and it’s a strong gateway into the minds of people who run this planet.”

3. “We’re plastic addicts, we have plasticised this planet.”

Every next step for an addict is the replacement drug. Gutsch uses this powerful analogy to help walk us towards a plastic-free future, by establishing recycled plastic as our alternative methadone programme. Gutsch explains that it is possible to stop using new plastic entirely, and replace every application with repurposed plastic. “Why did we create a shoe? It told the story of ocean plastic in a different way, as a solution,” Gutsch explains. The end of new plastic can unlock creative potential.

4. “We have to accept that this is a superstar failure, this is the celebrity of downfall.”

Beyond the plastic bottles and bags and packets, is the unquantifiable number of microparticles making their way into our water systems. Some estimates say we will have more plastic in the oceans than fish, by 2050. Others make even more sobering claims, predicting the total loss of marine life by 2048. “Every second breath we take is created by the oceans,” says Gutsch. Our very lives depend on them. 

5. “You’re looking at the next 10 years left to turn this around. I think it’s a creative challenge, and we can achieve this in our lifetime.”

Gutsch isn’t daunted by the challenge ahead. “Environmentalism, my friends from the movement say, has failed; we were not fast or seductive enough, but the truth is you can be so good with your presentations, you can create rivers of tears, but when you walk out of meetings all the bad news will fade away.” His response? “We will save the oceans, by making it a very good business.” Parley’s partners would undoubtedly agree, given Gutsch has support from brands such as Adidas, VICE and Mercedes Benz, to name just a few.

Despite the global players Gutsch has lined up, one gets the sense that he is only just getting started. “The further you think forward, the further you start influencing”, he says of the looming plastic horizon. “Plastic pollution relates to everyone, it’s in everyone’s life”, driving home his most powerful point, “so the question is, what are you going to do in the next 10 years?” 

If you joined us in London and would like to share your highlights and how you've been inspired to make a change in your world, drop us an email on with the subject Virgin Disruptors 2016.

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