Welcome to the Pristine Ocean podcast. I’m your host Peter Hall. In the podcast, we talked to people and projects around the world, tackling the scourge of marine plastic litter.
You may have heard the term circular economy. It means feeding waste materials back into valuable products.
But the demands of circularity create problems for the waste collectors. The waste collectors will need to document and track their work.
They will want to make the claim “I collected this material at this place and at this time”. But as in any business transaction, it comes down to trust and the only way to gain trust is transparency. You need some kind of book or ledger where you can enter your claim.
Other stakeholders should be able to look into this ledger and importantly, nobody should be able to make changes like adding or removing a few zeros.
In this episode we are talking to the founder of Empower. Empower is a Norwegian company which has created the digital infrastructure to account for collected plastics and currency transactions anywhere in the world.
It’s all based on blockchain technology. You’ve probably heard about the blockchain, but if you still don’t get it, you are not alone.
Think of it as an Excel spreadsheet somewhere in the Internet. You can add a row to this spreadsheet, but you can’t change the data in the existing rows. This makes it great for recording transactions.
With different materials and currencies with different players.
All around the world.
Empower has projects in over 30 countries of the world and has gained unique insights into how to solve the plastic crisis.
Here’s the interview with Wilhelm, the founder of Empower.
Hi Wilhelm, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
Yeah, well and thanks for having me here as well and great to meet you.
I think I understand that empower is wanting to connect the people who are collecting plastic with people prepared to pay for that and empower is creating the digital tools to make that all possible.
But let’s get back to your story. What were you doing before in power?
Yeah, I’m a I’m a lawyer by education but I after law school, I actually started an oil company and brought together a team of like expats from Schlumberger working in oil service.
It was an exciting thing to do straight out of law school.
Then I started a lot of different companies. I have been, , doing a lot of startups for fun as well and had the mining company in West Africa. We bought this Premier League football club in Liberia which were running like as a hobby on a football Academy.
I figured that if I’m going to do anything you will always be risks, but at least if you’re going to do anything, you do something that feel good about anyway. Y
So you’ve moved from fairly environmentally destructive industries to solar and now plastic litter. Why this movement?
It was more less than getting kids and everything. I think OK, if I’m going to spend the rest of my life working like this, and , really, it becomes your job and also hobby.
So when we, look back, at least. OK, we made something that actually can make the world better.
And that’s really motivating, right every day. At least you see that yeah, this you might actually help on a scale that you can do yourself because we’re, , building a solution or not.
Yeah, not just building your own business or and it’s a job, but it’s actually a much larger purpose, right?
So you’re not looking for incremental change, you’re looking for a systemic change.
the small solutions that are out there that work in a small context? How can we manage to make them on the global scale really make a difference?
So something happened with you when you met. As I understand it, Simon your CTO.
Simon was by chance actually we had some mutual friend, but I didn’t know him. I met him on this New Year’s party actually and he was more interested in blockchain technology and I didn’t really know what he was doing done.
But , yeah, he was just asking. OK, how can you use blockchain technology to do something about plastic waste and?
He was running his own NGO doing beach cleanups in in the Nordics.
As a marine engineer, he had tonnes of experience and knowledge about plastic and the whole problem how plastic bottle deposit system works in Norway, where having a recycling rate of 99 percent.
It seems to me that you will have like like 2 brains in this company. you’ve sort of got this very high tech company. And you’re working as like a in an NGO in in global sales. How do you bridge that?
Yeah, I mean we do, and it’s definitely a challenge at times. And when we got the idea, we also had that discussion first, right?
Should we do it as an NGO or should we do it as a company? We got advice from people who said like OK do it as a startup as a company because it opens up for more funding.
I think that if you really want to make that systemic change, it needs to be sustainable, right? It needs to be money that comes from it, and jobs that can be created and not just by donations. But you really need to create sustainable value for society.
But there’s also a cultural gap. You’re sitting in a rich country and your frontline workers are not in, not in Norway, they’re in in Ghana, in Sri Lanka, in in Africa.
How do you? Yeah, I mean, how do you bridge that culturally? Geographically, all those other things that come up in that in that distance.
I think the good thing that I had been kind of working in this. my career has only been companies in different regions like from Southeast Asia to Middle East. , like Ukrainian, Eastern Europe and.
I’ve been working in these places and from a business perspective and seeing what the challenges are.
How to include the locals want to succeed and not end up to pay your out way out of problems?
You’re paying somebody in a token in some kind of currency to pick up a plastic bottle or a piece of piece of plastic and bring it to a collection point.
What happens after that that’s when a lot of things go bad either. It gets brought to a landfill lands back in the River or all these other things are used addressing that problem as well.
After the first 50 metres if you like.
Yeah, I mean, and that’s what we, we have been doing in the last couple years
One example was in in Bali in Indonesia, where they did the cleanup and what happened is that there comes a guy they pay. His truck picks up the waste and he drives away and then he drives to the next river and dumps it because he’d pay get paid to take the waste away. The more he dumps, the more money, he makes.
But there’s something lacking and that’s the infrastructure. The last 2 years, our focus is to build that kind of tracking platform where you’re more or less digitised the whole ecosystem.
You say in your website that there’s one of the major problems is that there is no marketplace no functioning markets for this.
For this waste why is there? Why aren’t the markets there?
The problemI as of today is we’re lacking so much infrastructure to take care of all the waste we make I mean, and especially in emerging markets.
You’ve gained an incredible amount of experience over the last couple of years in a in a completely new area.
What what do now that you didn’t know before?
Maybe we have gotten is that really diverse view because we have been working now in in more than 30 countries right and we sit and talk to people and organisations in all these countries every day, so I think what we kind of have learned is what are the similarities between the million city and the small village in Laos, which is a jungle problem in Nigeria again, and there’s some very clear similarities in what the issues are and regardless of the infrastructure or the culture or education it’s there are some things there and and yeah, it’s usually just about as incentives.
Great, what I’m going to take away from the conversation is that your empower is building the tools to string these activities.
Together from collection through to a circularity to reusing the the materials.
Wilhelm, thank you for taking the time today. I and anybody who’s listening to this story. I’m sure wish you all the success with this great approach.
Yeah, thanks a lot for having me as well and letting us talk here. So yeah, appreciate what you’re doing as well and talking about.
This so that’s great.
That was Wilhelm from empower.
Full disclosure, I am part of empower’s plastic positive programme where I contribute €5 a month and offset more than my plastic use.
Maybe you want to check it out on the empower website which is in the show notes.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for listening to the Pristine Ocean podcast. The podcast that speaks to people and projects about ideas to tackle the scourge of marine plastic litter.