Bureo (or waves in the language of the Mapuche, the native Chileans) is taking one man’s trash and turning it into skateboards. The company is recycling abandoned fishing nets from the ocean floors in Chile and transforming them into little cruisers you can ride down the streets. They’re reaffirming the value of the waste we let pile up in landfills and in the ocean as a genuine and strong resource. Last week, we had the chance to chat with co-founder David Stover and learn more about the company, about how they started and where they are heading.
Hey David, thanks for your time. Where in the world are you right now? You guys do stuff in Chile, you told me you were in L.A. last week and the phone number you called me from earlier was from Rhode Island. What’s going on?
Ha! I’m actually in Venice Beach California today. The program is ongoing in Chile. Ben (co-founder) is still down living in Chile. Kevin (the other co-founder) and I will be headed down there in a month or two. We’re currently taking care of some marketing events around L.A. and we’ll be spending some time in Southern California.
How’s the weather?
It’s good. 80 degrees (27 degrees Celsius) and sunny. You can’t beat California when it comes to weather.
How are the waves?
It has been kind of hard to transition back from living in Chile last year where you pretty much find waves every time you went to the coast. We are trying to get used to the Southern California swell sort of vibe. There’s a storm that’s forming in the south pacific that should come all the way up next week. We’re looking forward to it.
What’s your educational and work background?
I grew up on the East Coast and worked in a surf shop for ten years. I then went out and got a Mechanical Engineering degree, which Ben and Kevin also have. After college I took a different path and went to work in finance. I took a desk job for about 6 years. But luckily, the last two years were down in Sydney, Australia. I was able to surf in Australia and travel around in New Zealand and Indo. That’s actually where the project sparked.
One of the most shocking parts was arriving at certain isolated beaches and still finding plastic and pollution on the beach. You start wondering “where is this coming from.” It was an eye opener. Especially in Indonesia where they have a hard time with waste management.
What were your co-founders Ben and Kevin doing before Bureo.
Kevin was working on underwater submersible designs at Boeing. Ben, similar to me, made a shift and went and got his Masters in Sustainability after also getting his Mechanical Engineering degree. He was working with companies to help understand the environmental impacts of their actions. Something we really focus on at Bureo. He definitely leads that charge for us.
Alright, lets talk about Bureo. Am I saying that right?
[Laughs]. Yeah, we get a lot of different pronunciations. The best way to explain it is to say it slow. You do B-O-O, then R-A-Y, and then YO. Boorayo (spelled Bureo).
So you guys, each with different backgrounds and experiences, seemed to have all the pieces to the puzzle for Bureo. What actually sparked the idea?
We had a mission to figure out where the plastic in the ocean was coming from. The original idea was to set up a recycling program to harvest the plastic that was coming in from the ocean, put value into it and sell it.
This eventually transformed into Net Postiva [Editor's note: their in-house program to recycle fish nets from the ocean]. That was the idea before we even thought about making a product of our own. The difficulty with that first idea was to make it sustainable and to get people excited to buy the plastic from the ocean. It was hard to get funding to hire people to simply recycle the plastic in the ocean to sell it afterwards.
We eventually realized that we needed a product of our own. That started a fun journey that eventually lead to us to use our own mechanical degrees to build a skateboard. The next question was which plastic do we use. That’s where things got really interesting. We started learning about where the plastic was coming from and what it was made of. There’s an alternative use for all the plastic that’s in the ocean right now. A lot of what we find are single use consumer containers that already have recycling programs (yet they’re in the ocean).
Fishing nets ended up being the best plastic for what we wanted to do. It’s estimated that 10% of the plastic in the ocean comes from fishing gear. Fishermen don’t have collection programs for their nets. There isn’t any recycling set up for the material. Once we had figured all of this out, the project really came together. We were going to launch a fishing net recycling program with support from the government in Chile and then harvest the plastic to turn it into skateboards.
Did anyone get the ah-ha moment, where all of the sudden you knew you should be making skateboards?
Ben and I use to live in Manly Beach, Australia. Ben use to got to work on his little cruiser and I would use my skateboard to go check out the waves. We didn’t grow up as trick skaters or anything. We were just surfers using skateboards as a mean for transportation. Something that we used more and more as we grew older.
When we were going through the ideas of what we could make, Ben was riding his skateboard in Santiago, Chile and was telling us about how these plastic cruisers were really coming back. That idea kept coming back and the people we talked to loved the idea of the plastic coming from the ocean and being transformed into decks.
Were there any other ideas? Did you come close to making some Bureo sandals or hats?
One of the first ideas we got was making trashcans for beaches. I still think that it’s a good idea but it was harder to find end customers for that type of product. It also did not add the level of excitement to the project that skateboards did.
The excitement that people got from skateboards was really one of the main reasons we kept going along with that idea. We do have a vision to use recycled plastic to make stuff other than skateboards but we want to make sure we produce high quality products that also bring the awareness issue of what is actually going on in the ocean. It’s one thing we have been able to do with the skateboards and it’s something we hope to continue to do in the future.
You guys have a board out that’s called the Minnow. What does Minnow mean?
Minnow is a small fish that you find on the East Coast where we grew up. We wanted to make sure to tie the product name to our program. The board had the fish scales look and the fish tail, so the name just completed the package.
So a Minnow is a fish. I feel like I should have known that. You guys launched on Kickstarter over a year ago. Your campaign raised over twice the amount of what you guys were asking for. Did you expect this type of response or were you completely blown away?
Yeah, we get that question a lot. One of the most nervous moments of my life was right before we launched that campaign. Contrary to a lot of other Kickstarter campaigns, we had already invested a lot of time and energy before the launch. We had already set up a recycling program, we already worked with manufacturers and had the tools needed to create the skateboards. We had already spent all the money we had raised, and our credit cards we maxed out. We had brought the project to a place where we knew we could deliver.
We felt good about the product but getting on Kickstarter is really showing your life’s worth and seeing if people are onboard with the project, no pun intended. If it didn’t work, it was probably a good indication that we were barking up the wrong tree. If it did work, we would fund our first production round. Luckily, the latter happened. We were still living in South America at that point and hadn’t really had any media push. For the project to gain momentum so quickly let us know that we had something special on our hands.
We expected to meet our goals but we were pleased to see it go beyond that. In hindsight, it’s a good thing that we went beyond because there were many unforeseen obstacles in creating a manufacturing process and a lot of costs we didn’t expect. We learned a lot of lessons during that first round.
Now that one year has passed, what would you consider your most memorable moment? Your first sale? The first time you rode your board?
One thing our team will never forget is the moment right before our Kickstarter launch. We had just finished our first small production run. Maybe 15 boards. We rode them. They weren’t perfect at that point but they were ridable and it was awesome. It was definitely a holy sh*t moment. We were still in a start-up mode with a lot of risks. It always feels like at every moment everything could topple over. Having an actual product that we could sell was a huge barrier that we had finally crossed.
We ended up going to a Jack Johnson concert in Chile and he had somehow heard about our project. He asked if he could ride one of our boards so we gave him one and he just left with it to continue his tour. He was probably the fifth person to ride one of our boards. He contacted us two months later asking if he could meet us in California to grab another board. Early on, that was obviously one of the coolest things that happened to us.
Patagonia got involved with Bureo in the fall of 2014. How did that happen and how does it help?
That was a huge moment for us. From a credibility stand point, you can’t ask for a better partner. It was really a right place at the right time situation. When we applied for our grant in Chile, the Director of Latin America (for the company Patagonia) heard about our project. He met us, we pitched the project to him and he helped us get our first grant with the government of Chile. We stayed in touch and when they saw the boards come out they reached out and asked if the could distribute the boards in some of their shops. They were our first secured retailer.
We then got a call from their investment team, 20 Million in Change (a fund set up by Patagonia and Yvon Chouinard to help like-minded organisations that are trying to make a difference). We ended up taking a seed investment. We are one of their smaller investments but we benefit a lot from them. They open a lot of doors and offer a lot of keen and sound advice.
Let’s crunch the numbers. How many decks have you made and how much plastic have you cleaned up from our ocean floors?
We’ve actually collected and recycled ten tons of nets and we’ve created just over 7000 skateboards. We are pretty proud of the amount of plastic we have been able to recycle. We are looking to double or triple that number in 2015.
As a modern social enterprise you inspire a lot of people, myself included. Who inspires you?
Early on we looked up at Patagonia. They’re a partner of ours now but they were able to build a profitable organisation while changing the world and proving what businesses were capable of. The were a real life example of what was possible.
We’re inspired by the purveyors of what were doing in the surf and skate world. There’s a surfer in Chile named Ramón Navarro. He’s a passionate local surfer and he’s have been fighting to keep his country wild and protect to the environment. He’s a professional surfer with sponsors but he’s always the first one to show up at the local beaches for pick ups and cleaning sessions. If a hotel or corporation wants to open in the region they have to go through Ramón and his family to get that done. They’re actually making a movie about his story. It’s important that people understand that we can stand up and make a difference. It’s something that we aim to achieve through our project. We want to empower people and let them know that we can all make a difference.
I would also throw Jack Johnson into the mix of inspirations. He obviously has a large fan base but in reality he lives a simple life. He likes to surf. Then he uses his energy and his resources to make a difference through non profits and charities. He’s a great example for everyone. Whether you’re notorious, famous or not, everyone can make a difference.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS CAN BE REVERSED AND WE SHOULD TAKE PRIDE IN THE STEPS WE TAKE.
Anything else you would like people to know about Bureo?
We don’t think we can solve these issues on their own.
The consumers, the companies that we work with and the people that we reach, together we can have a much greater impact. Everyone should be more conscious of the impacts that the small incremental changes in their everyday lives make. Just using one less single-use container helps. The environmental crisis can be reversed and we should take pride in the steps we take.
David, thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Bureo?
Great talking to you Nick.
Have a good week David!
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