It’s not my day job: Ben Gilbert, part-time ecopreneur

In our new series, it's not my day job, we look at what CIWEM members are doing outside of their 9 to 5 to help the planet. We continue the series with Ben Gilbert, project manager at Northumbrian Water and co-founder of sustainable clothing and apparel brand North Sea Rejects.

Tell us more about your weekend business converting fishing gear found via local beach cleans into bracelets?

During the initial lockdowns of 2020, my partner and I did a beach clean nearly every day as our daily permitted exercise. We’ve always been active beach cleaners so this really helped us feel useful at a time where we couldn’t travel to volunteer. We were really aware that many conservation projects were struggling financially at this time and wanted to do something from home to help.

We came up with the idea for North Sea Rejects. This is our ‘weekend business’ where we use lost and discarded fishing gear, we find on our beach cleans across a raft of beaches in Northumberland and South Tyneside and stretching almost into North Yorkshire.

We these discarded finds into bracelets, which we sell and donate 75 per cent of our proceeds to marine conservation projects worldwide.

We like the idea that we’re salvaging a waste product from our local beaches and using it to create something positive that helps conservation efforts.

You mentioned that the above acts a platform for engaging the public on marine conservation issues. How have you found local businesses, organisations and community groups have engaged with the work you do?

It’s been amazing! I honestly believe that the only way to solve the environmental challenges we’re facing is by pulling together and lifting each other up. So, in that way it’s been amazing because through North Sea Rejects, we’ve found out there are so many people locally who have the same passion as us and are keen to work together to make more of an impact.

We’ve met with community groups to join climate marches, organised meet ups to discuss how we can all work together, and I’ve been able to deliver talks on marine conservation at local businesses and schools. School talks is something I’m really passionate about and seeing younger people engaged gives me a lot of hope.

I often hear that the younger generations are the answer to solving our environmental and climate crisis, which I agree is true, but I think that can also be a way for other generations to kick the can down the road.

We all have a part to play and things we can do and knowing so many people in my local area and beyond share that sentiment is truly inspiring.

Can you describe your proudest moment related to your side business?

Although we’ve only been going for just less than a year, there have been so many proud moments! We’ve been featured in local press and on TV discussing the impacts of plastic pollution and been able to engage with the local community.

But I’d say the proudest moment was our very first batch of bracelets selling out – knowing that people liked our business but more importantly, knowing that we’ve been able to raise funds to donate to projects who are leading the hard work of conservation.

You’ve also used your annual leave to volunteer for marine conservation projects, both at home and abroad. How has this impacted you?

It’s had a very profound impact, in terms of enriching and empowering a passion to help drive change. Some of my favorite memories have been from my volunteering with sea turtle conservation, protecting them from various threats including poaching.

I remember after one long 9-hour night patrol, just as the sun was about to rise, we sat quietly and watched a huge green sea turtle arrive at the beach to nest. Usually they nest completely in darkness, but this one was a later arrival, so we had a real treat to watch such a pure and natural moment.

Just as the day broke, we watched her nest on a beach absolutely covered in plastic waste, much of it single use, which had washed in on the incoming tide. This was one of the defining moments of my life, where I saw the impact of human consumption firsthand. I was exhausted and emotional and watched her leave the beach with tears in my eyes.

Another night, we stumbled on a nest as it was hatching out. Seeing the tiny, perfectly formed hatchlings make their way to the ocean was an amazing experience, and something that I’ll never forget. Both of these memories help drive my passion for protecting marine wildlife and knowing that individual actions do make a difference and that these actions can start from home.

Has your work made you feel more or less hopeful about the state of the UK/international coastlines?

It’s made me feel both ways. On the one hand, learning more about the state of our environment (terrestrial and marine) can be overwhelming, and I sometimes have to fight my own mental battle to keep positive. It’s easy to feel helpless or like you’re too small to make a difference – particularly when we see so much regression and politics affecting the environmental movement.

However, North Sea Rejects has given me an outlet to channel my passion and I try to think how small actions can still make a difference. Those pieces of ghost fishing gear we remove, the bits of plastic we take from the beach, and the projects who are getting a little extra funding, it all still matters and that’s what keeps me going.

But most of all I try to think about that turtle I saw, making her nest surrounded by humanity’s plastic waste, which reminds me there’s still so much worth fighting for, and that is why I remain hopeful.

What’s the biggest lesson about the environment you’ve learnt as result of creating your side business and your volunteer work in marine conservation in general?

That anyone and everyone can be a leader and work for environmental improvements, in their own way. That doing something is always better than doing nothing, and never let what you can’t control stop you from doing what you can.

How does the marine conservation work you do outside of your 9 to 5 influence your day job?

It really drives me to do more. While I’m starkly aware that so much work is needed on a large scale to be driven by governments, regulators, and businesses; we can also affect change at community and individual level. I’m fortunate to be in a privileged position where I can help the environment, and have the passion to do so, so I’m always trying to push forward.

What pearl of wisdom would you offer to someone considering following in your footsteps?

I heard this once and it really resonated – ask yourself two questions: what inspires you, and what scares you? Then use your answers to find something you can apply your skills and passion to. Aim for progress, not perfection. It sounds cliche but I remember a famous quote I read - “I always wished somebody would do something about that. Then I remembered, I was somebody”. Just go for it.

What’s next for you?

We're looking at a few things at the moment, to build on what we've done so far, particularly reusing other forms of plastic that we can find. But these are in the very early stages. The circular economy is a really growing and exciting space.

And the thing we're also trying to push more into, is community projects. As I'm a project manager by day we’re working on a few ideas locally that will help to utilise these skills to support greening/rewilding projects in the area.

More from the series:

It’s not my day job: Adam Sennitt, Surfers Against Sewage rep

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