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Meet Pia Ocampo, A Diver Who Helps Turn Ocean Plastic Into School Chairs

This ad creative who founded "Pure Oceans" is committed to finding solutions to one of the toughest problems in the Philippines: ocean plastic waste!

If there’s one thing the advertising industry taught Pia Ocampo, its how to be a professional problem solver. “To really zero in on finding problems and finding out-of-the-box solutions for them,” says the longtime advertising creative and digital marketing consultant.

“Advertising’s not all that bad, guys,” she adds with a laugh, “just make sure you use your creative powers to solve real-world problems!” (Read: Four personalities who are celebrating the Earth’s 50th birthday—the right way!)

Ocean Waste

As founder of marine conservation social enterprise Pure Oceans, Pia is committed to finding solutions to one of the toughest real-world problems in the Philippines: ocean plastic waste.

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Most of ocean plastic waste consist soft plastic sachets used to pack instant soup, 3-in-1 coffee, and salty snacks. (Photo from Pia Ocampo Facebook)

In 2015, the Philippines earned the notoriety of placing third (after China and Indonesia) in the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment’s list of countries with the most discarded plastic that ends up in the ocean. (Read: Celebrities Enchong Dee and Ria Atayde inspire a local community to fight plastic pollution)

With such overwhelming statistics, where does one even begin? For Pia, it started with diving. “I love it. it’s the closest thing to discovering a different side to the planet,” says this diver since 2006. “There’s so much life down there, in every dive, there’s always a surprise.”

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(Left) Plastic trash is now as common as fish in the sea; (Right) women in a partner community in Batangas show their haul. (Photos from NHK and Pure Oceans Philippines Instagram)

Surprise is right. Through the years, sightings of unusual marine life peeking through corals have slowly been replaced with various forms of commercial plastic. With each dive, Pia found herself dutifully collecting underwater plastic waste—both with her husband and with other divers in scubasurero events. (Read: How you can turn your hobby into a personal advocacy)

Community Involvement

Through Pure Oceans’ partnership with island and coastal communities in Batangas, Pia ensures the continued cleanup and collection of plastic waste—both the kind that is used by families in these communities and the debris that is washed up daily on their shores.

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(Left) Volunteers sort residual plastics in a materials recovery facility (MRF) in Anilao. (Right) Teaching the kids of Sitio Balanoy, Mabini, Batangas, about marine plastic litter. (Photo from Pia Ocampo Facebook and Pure Oceans Philippines Instagram)

While the local government units of these communities undergo workshops to develop waste management solutions for their particular areas, locals are incentivized to collect, segregate, and store plastic waste—from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles to the soft plastic sachets used to pack instant soup, 3-in-1 coffee, and salty snacks.

Unique Machinery

The collected plastic waste is brought to Pia’s other initiative, ReMaker Space—a recycling center house in two repurposed trailer containers located at the back of Thames International College in Bagumbayan, Quezon City. (Read: Don’t know what to do with your old clothes? Bring them to these four establishments!)

Described as the first-ever learning and making facility for upcycling technology and techniques, the ReMaker Space has segregated sacks of PET bottles, discarded e-commerce packaging, and other plastic waste stacked in corners.

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Upcycling. Pia feeds shredded plastic into an extrusion machine where it will be melted and ejected through a line of plastic. (Photos by Victor Guerrero)

It also has unique machinery—a majority of them from Precious Plastic PH, the local counterpart to a global company that provides solutions upcycling plastic. There’s a shredder specifically for plastic material; an extrusion machine where shredded plastic is inserted, melted, and comes out of a line of plastic. There’s also an injection machine that produces very precise objects and a pizza oven that is used to melt the shredded plastic. (Read: #addtokARTproject: Filipino Artists raise funds to support COVID-19 frontliners)

Waste to Value

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(Left) School chairs by Envirotech Waste Recycling, Inc. are made entirely out of upcycled plastic. (Photos by Victor Guerrero)

Pia describes upcycled plastic as durable and robust—qualities evident in two products made with the material. A blue school chair, a creation of Envirotech Waste Recycling, Inc., employs all recycled plastic trash but is as solid (and much heavier) than wood. Black square floor tiles also made of plastic waste are just as sturdy. (Read: Mindful Living: What’s the deal with reusable bamboo straws?)

The recovered plastic litter is also used to fill up beanbags of a brand called Beached Bums. Pure Oceans design consultant Gerome Sta. Maria also crafted a collection of shoes with residual plastic waste for its heels. This shoe collection, called “Diwata,” placed third at the Design 2 Business Startup Bootcamp in Taichung, Taiwan last year.

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Photos from Gerome Sta Maria Instagram

Long-Term Goals

For all her great strides, Pia knows that much still needs to be done. Even with laws like Republic Act 9003 (“An Act Providing for an Ecological Solid Waste Management Program”) in place, segregation rates in the country remain low.

“Waste is not a topic that a lot of people want to talk about,” Pia observes. “Especially for Filipinos– they just want to get it out of their bodies as quickly as possible. We can’t rely on people to put some more thought into how they take care of their waste.”

This is why Pia works hard to tap the national government and push for policy reforms that focus on waste management and the protection of the Philippine oceans. “We don’t want to be doing emergency response forever,” she says.

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Photo by Victor Guerrero

The longterm goal is also a long shot, but Pia has already taken steps to make it happen. In fact, she’s in talks with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Philippines and environment advocate Senator Risa Hontiveros.

The audacity of it all—community mobilization, meeting a senator—takes Pia by surprise. However, she reminds herself that it’s because she wants to solve a problem. “If all creatives went out and chose a problem that they want to solve, they will end up being in unexpected places like me.”

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