Purple Magazine
— F/W 2014 issue 22

Bionic Yarn

on saving the oceans from plastic pollution

portrait of TYSON TOUSSANT
interview by ELISE GALLANT


Bionic Yarn, Parley for the Oceans, and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are three organizations with a plan to help save the oceans from devastating plastic pollution. By looking at trash as a raw material, they have devised a new industry, which mines the plastic vortexes in the oceans and rede- fines luxury goods. Captain Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, provides eyes and ears on the water with his lifetime’s experience of ecological activism and mission to end the whaling industry. Cyrill Gutsch is the founder of Parley for the Oceans, a think tank connecting innovators, intellectuals, and influencers from around the world to collaborate on initiatives that promote the health of our oceans. Tyson Toussant is the entrepreneur who developed the means for large-scale production of plastic into fashion. Their multifaceted approach provides a real possibility for cleaning up our oceans and is quickly gaining momentum. This initiative is currently championed by Pharrell Williams, G-Star RAW, and hopefully many more to come.


ELISE GALLANT — How did Bionic Yarn get started?
TYSON TOUSSANT — My idea was to wrap textiles around a plastic fiber core. It keeps plastic bottles out of the environment and uses fewer natural resources while providing the same feel you would expect of cotton, denim, or anything else. It’s also more durable. My vision is that the private sector will be able to take on the problems in the world. Brands can take responsibility by picking up some of the garbage in the ocean, and consumers can make personal purchases with purpose. I hope to be part of that infrastructure by providing Bionic Yarn.
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — Bionic Yarn is an impossible solution made possible. Once you start a problem it will escalate. Once you start a solution it can escalate, too. What we have to do is to make sure our solutions keep up with our problems.
CYRILL GUTSCH — When you start with something like saving the ocean, it can be so overwhelming, like, where do you begin? Whaling, overfishing, pollution, acidification, climate change — it’s easy to run away from these issues. But we broke it down and wondered what’s one problem that we can just eliminate from everyone’s life. What’s something my grandmother can get rid of? So we started by focusing on plastic, removing it from the shore- lines and from the ocean.

ELISE GALLANT — What happens to plastic in the ocean?
TYSON TOUSSANT — There are five vortexes where plastic accumulates. The first time I learned about one in the Atlantic, it was the size of Texas, and now it’s the size of the United States. You can see them from space, and we know their width and length, but the depth is unknown.
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — From a natural perspective, all that plastic breaking down is ingested by birds and fish and kills hundreds of thousands, if not millions, every year. If you go to the island of Midway, you’ll see corpses with their stomachs full of plastic, which then gets picked up and fed to more birds.

ELISE GALLANT — So the Sea Shepherds are organizing cleanup crews to collect this plastic, remove it from the marine food chain, and provide it to Bionic Yarn. How much of an impact does that make?
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — It will take a lot of initiatives. Like San Francisco’s ban on plastic bottles and Tasmania’s ban on plastic bags. We have to approach it from that point of stopping the source at the same time as removing the problem that’s in the ocean and on our beaches. The technology that Bionic Yarn has developed is amazing: to turn plastic into a thread that’s wrapped in cotton or other materials. I don’t even know how you guys do it! If you can do something that complex, then taking this stuff out of the ocean is rather simple. We can mine the sea of plastic. It’s almost like an oil industry because we’re recovering a petroleum by product.

ELISE GALLANT — Recovering it and reintroducing it at the top of the market. I understand you’re working with brands like G-Star RAW and Adidas?
TYSON TOUSSANT — It’s been really exciting. I want to focus on removing plastic from the ocean, and my targets are brands that have the ability to offset some of their environmental impact by using our product.
CYRILL GUTSCH — Jeans and sneakers are amazing carriers for our message. They reach areas where these issues would never be discussed. It proves that recycling is not just a concept, it’s really out there, and we can really use it.

ELISE GALLANT — How did the collaboration with G-Star RAW develop?
G-Star really stands by us. They didn’t want to make one t-shirt to save the rain forest. They see this as the future.
TYSON TOUSSANT — Within seven months of introducing the concept, we were already on their shelves. They’ve been the most enthusiastic and forward with this fabric. They’re open to thinking outside the box. I’ve heard the CMO say they don’t hire fashion designers, they hire people who design shapes and have an interesting perspective on design. That approach to denim keeps us in the G-Star world; that’s how I think about Bionic Yarn.

ELISE GALLANT — At G-Star’s last fashion presentation, they invited everyone to the American Museum of Natural History to present their collaboration with you.
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — I don’t think there’s ever been a fashion show where the models are replaced by scientists.
TYSON TOUSSANT — That made me proud. Not to show one item of clothing on the night of vanity. And everyone was thinking about their future, their kids, what they could do. After the American Museum of Natural History, I saw a lot of my everyday friends being affected by it. Seeing them rejecting plastic bags and walking out of the store with groceries in their hands, you know, the most self-centered New York City people talking about changing their lifestyle. That’s incredible.

Illustration made from Chris Jordan’s photo Midway: Message From The Gyre

ELISE GALLANT — And having Pharrell as a brand ambassador must help turn people on to the idea?
TYSON TOUSSANT — He’s amazing. When no one was paying attention, he wanted to go beyond and get involved, to be a part of it. I think Pharrell is a perfect conduit to the masses. And as for brands, it’s crazy! I went from begging clients to give it more than a capsule look and being laughed out of their offices, to sitting down with multibillion-dollar brands. We’ve got a recipe for a new beginning, mixing Paul’s perspective and approach to life with Pharrell’s sensibility and our product. We may not have all the answers, but we’re setting the infrastructure and the mind set for behavior.

ELISE GALLANT — The mix of celebrity, product, and activism seems like a perfect example of what Parley aims to do.
CYRILL GUTSCH — No one person is going to make this change. Everything is so vertical, and the cross-intelligence is not there. What we’ve done is to bring scientists, environmentalists, companies, and celebrities all together on the same page to talk about trying to solve the problem. You have to translate you have to create a universal language between these people, and that’s a challenge. It’s a curation job.
TYSON TOUSSANT — It was amazing being in a room with Paul and Pharrell and thinking about how different I am from these people, but we’re all working toward the same goal. But there are so many people involved. We worked with Julian Schnabel to do the logo for Parley, and he hosted the first meeting at his house. The biggest people in business — philanthropy, the arts — were all gathered in Julian’s living room to raise money for Paul. And Paul Skyped in from Antarctica telling us about his whale rescues. That was the night that the ocean plastic campaign was born. It felt like a Wes Anderson movie. The second party was hosted by Pharrell in Berlin, and it was more business-centered. That’s where we got the G-Star RAW and Adidas deals. There was a group of 50 creative directors and CEOs during Mercedes- Benz Fashion Week Berlin. So it was a bit more commercial, and we had an impact. We met a bunch of brands.

ELISE GALLANT — All in one year. Parley sounds like an incredible accelerator.
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — We have to make saving the oceans fashionable. You know, little things like removing plastic garbage from the sea and turning it into clothing. It’s different, it’s unique, it’s visual. People can’t see the fishing industry, but they see fashion. And how do you protect the ocean? You create an economic incentive. There’s a lot of economic incentives to destroy the ocean, but there are few to save it. Bionic Yarn is probably the first real economic alternative that I’ve ever seen.

ELISE GALLANT — I’ve heard that 2025 will mark the extinction of coral reefs, and Dr. Boris Worm’s studies show that our fishing industry will collapse by 2048 if today’s practices are unabated. These dates are so soon!
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — Well, that’s the date Dr. Worm put on it, but I think he was being very optimistic. You know the Great Barrier Reef is about 80% destroyed. All of these species are interdependent, so when you remove one species it affects the rest down the line. I think the biggest threat to the ocean is the diminishment of plankton. Since 1950 it’s been reduced by 30%. Now Norway and Japan are talking about harvesting plankton with nets. They want to turn it into a protein paste for livestock. Also, 45% of all of the fish that comes out of the ocean isn’t eaten by people; it’s fed to chickens, pigs, salmon, and cats. Domestic house cats are eating more fish than all of the world’s seals put together. All the chickens are eating more fish than the world’s albatross and puffin populations put together.
CYRILL GUTSCH — Killing fish is a major part of our economy, from the sushi plate to cat food.

ELISE GALLANT — It’s sad that there’s a huge industry for gathering these living resources but so little exploration of our oceans. We know less about the oceans than we know about outer space.
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — We’re spending millions of dollars trying to communicate with extraterrestrials, but we spend nothing on trying to communicate with the other life on this planet. Whales and dolphins have highly sophisticated language and communication systems that we probably could decode. Dolphins have learned English words. The other thing is that dolphins can see through bodies; they can see how organs are functioning. When they see a heart pumping, they know the emotion of that animal, so basically they’re incapable of lying to each other. Dolphins will sometimes rescue people because they can see the water in their lungs, and they know they’re in trouble. Their sonar is like an X-ray. Whales communicate like computers with a lot of digital information. Some scientists think they can transmit images to each other, but we can’t prove that yet.
CYRILL GUTSCH — I see whales as the ultimate super-servers. They have all knowledge. It’s like a global Internet that’s a hundred times more advanced than anything we currently have.
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — The English language has hundreds of thousands of words in it, but humpback whales have two million vocal tones. They speak in ranges higher and lower than we can hear. The human brain is 1,700 cubic centimeters. Sperm whales have the largest brain that’s ever evolved on this planet; it’s 9,000 cubic centimeters. People say, “Yeah, whales have big bodies, but so did the dinosaurs, and they had walnut sized brains.” Brain size is extremely important. But even more important is that all life forms from mice to humans have a three-lobe brain. Whales and dolphins have a four lobe brain. The forth lobe is almost entirely devoted to associative behavior and communication. So when it comes to communications, they’re far above us. The problem is that we measure intelligence by hand-eye coordination. We use tools. They don’t have any need for tools, so they’re what we call a non-manipulative intelligence. They’re quite secure, except for us killing them. They don’t need a house to live in. They don’t need clothing to wear. They spend a lot of time on social interactions with each other.

ELISE GALLANT — Sounds like there’s a lot we could learn from them.
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — But instead of trying to communicate with dolphins, we’re militarizing them. There’s an initiative to attach CO2 missiles onto dolphin’s heads so when they ram a person it would explode. It’s pretty barbaric. I think we’re just afraid to communicate. We probably won’t like what they have to say.

ELISE GALLANT — Instead of communicating, we’re exploiting them.
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — And there’s money to be made by driving species to extinction. I call it the economics of extinction. The bluefin tuna is worth on average $75,000 per fish; some sell for $1 million in Japan. It’s a unique fish, and they want it. So Mitsubishi and other companies are packing it into refrigerated warehouses, and they have a 10-15 year supply. If you wipe out that fish, and the only tunas left in the world are stuck in refrigerators in Japan, then they’ll have billions of dollars of profit. So unfortunately there are people investing in it.

ELISE GALLANT — But there are also people investing in Bionic Yarn. Can recycling compete with a million-dollar fish?
CYRILL GUTSCH — It has to come from brands and celebrities.
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — Celebrities have the power to really change things. Two years ago China put 200 species on the endangered species list and banned shark fins. A major reason for this was because people like Michelle Yeoh, Jackie Chan, and Yao Ming got involved. Not only the people, but the Chinese government listened to them and took action. They made it unfashionable to have shark fin soup at your wedding.

ELISE GALLANT — Do you think this environmental industry you’re developing could take over?
TYSON TOUSSANT — We need more competitors! I want other people to try to recover plastic and wasted goods and make something new. Everyone can have their own twist on it. We need more desire to drive this. People need to purchase in order for anyone to care. We need to create a symbiotic relationship with trash instead of just filling up this endless hole that is not actually endless.
CYRILL GUTSCH — These days trash is a by product that we accept. We have to move to the next phase where people expect a high-quality product to be eco-friendly. It has to become a requirement. Luxury will be redefined.

ELISE GALLANT — This represents a pretty major shift in the way we think about economy.
CYRILL GUTSCH — Yes, but it doesn’t involve any major change on the consumer side. We’re just offering a new choice. It’s how capitalism should work.
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — America isn’t capitalist anymore. It’s more like corporate communism. The people who complain about giving single mothers welfare checks don’t seem to mind giving billions of dollars to corporations. A lot of free enterprise is stifled. In 1995, I presented a cruelty-free, non-lethal form of sealing. Baby harbor seals lose their hair after a few weeks. If we go in with a hairbrush we can get over 300 grams from each seal.

ELISE GALLANT — They’re killing seals for their fur?
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — The hair is transparent and hollow. One of the best insulating fibers around, better than goose down. So I came up with this idea to turn the seal clubbers into seal brushers. I brought Martin Sheen to eastern Canada to promote it. We got attacked in our helicopter and in our hotel rooms. I was beaten. I still remember the head of the sealer union saying, “We don’t want anything to do with a faggoty idea like brushing seals.” That’s their attitude; it threatens their manliness. We’re trying to get around that attitude, and we created a product that is more valuable than the one that they were getting from killing the seals. We had a company in Germany that was willing to buy all the seal hairs we could produce.

ELISE GALLANT — So why didn’t it get off the ground?
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — Because the Canadian government refused to grant permits for it. They prevented free enterprise while subsidizing a dying industry. Sealing in Canada is subsidized to a tune of about $10 million a year. They pay people to kill seals, not to protect them.

ELISE GALLANT — Part of your mission statement says, “Human economy must be harmonized with the ecosystem of nature.” Can you clarify this idea?
TYSON TOUSSANT — A lot of greed needs to be eliminated. A lot of advancements in our world are held back because of analyzing profit margins instead of the benefit to society. All the answers are here. I mean, I saw something the other day about a plastic created from shrimp shells, but how long will it take before that becomes a viable alternative?
CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON — It’s a shift from anthropocentric to biocentric ecology. Humans aren’t the center of the world. You know, for most of human existence we’ve lived in harmony with our environment. It wasn’t really until the Industrial Revolution that things started to go wrong. We need to go back to being a part of the circle, not the center of it. We’ll either make the choice, or nature will make it for us. Protecting our oceans is the single most important requirement that humans must adhere to. It’s more important than finding the cure for cancer or anything else. If the oceans die, we die.


[Table of contents]

F/W 2014 issue 22

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS

purple BEST of the SEASON





purple BEAUTY

purple LOVE

purple SEX

purple NIGHT

purple STORY


Subscribe to our newsletter