When 15-year-old Sydney Steenland and her family decided to sail across South-East Asia five years ago, they were expecting an adventure of a lifetime.
However, that dream took a disappointing turn when they found themselves cruising amidst endless plastic waste and ghost nets, which are fishing nets lost or abandoned at sea.
“It was hard to avoid the plastic as it was everywhere and floated through the villages, out to sea and back again to the villages, ” Sydney said, referring to the time they were in Indonesia where they spent three months.
This up-close encounter with plastic pollution greatly burdened the Steenlands, who were then inspired to devote their lives to making the planet a better, cleaner place together.
That was how the Sea Monkey Project was born.
“The ocean has provided so much for our family during the years we were living at sea, until today. It was our home where we fished for food sources, played and made friends with the other sea creatures, ” said Sydney, spokesperson and founder of the social enterprise.
“It’s sad to see the pollution we, as humans, have done to the ocean. It does not deserve this, ” she added.
Officially established a year ago, the Sea Monkey Project aims to tackle the issue of plastic and other types of waste in oceans. One of its key initiatives is upcycling the waste into products such as souvenirs, accessories, bags and containers.
Statistics by The International Union for Conservation of Nature states that over 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year.
At least eight million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans annually, making up 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments.
In Malaysia, plastic waste pollution is an equally major concern. Last year, the Switzerland-based Race for Water Foundation revealed that Malaysia ranked 8th globally for worst management of plastic waste, and 5th in the world for plastic pollution in oceans.
In February, it was reported by the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) that Malaysia is South-East Asia’s worst plastic polluter, with the average Malaysian estimated to use about 17kg of plastic packaging each year.
Sydney left Australia with her parents and younger brother, Indi, on a 41ft (12.5m) yacht called Sea Monkey in hopes of a better life when unfortunate circumstances made the family lose their home.
Her father, Carlos, ran a carpentry business while her mum, Sarah, was an interior designer.
Being homeschooled, one of the most interesting online courses Sydney has taken is marine biology, which further fuelled her interest in marine life and conservation.
“I’m glad to have the opportunity to start early with this cause, which I’m very passionate about, so I can learn a lot and make a difference in this world, ” she said.
Having sailed through many countries in South-East Asia, Malaysia holds a dear place in the Steenlands’ hearts.
When the Sea Monkey yacht’s engine broke down at one point when they were in Penang, they were stuck there for a while until their engine got fixed.
It was during that time that they decided to choose Malaysia as the base to set up the Sea Monkey Project.Sydney with the Manta Ray backpack made by upcycling ocean waste.
“We realised how much we really love Malaysia because of the people here. Malaysia has been much more open minded and open hearted to us. The food and lifestyle here is great, but more importantly, the country has been super supportive of us starting a business,” shared Sydney.
However, she noticed that it is also a place badly affected by plastic pollution.
From July 21-Aug 21 recently, the Sea Monkey Project released their first range of bags made entirely of upcycled ocean waste. This, along with a crowdfunding drive, received outstanding support from Malaysians and others across the globe. In fact, by Aug 11, they had already achieved 100% of their funding. They also partnered with Earth Restoration to plant one mangrove tree in Myanmar for every bag sold.
The initiative also benefits underserved communities. The products are handmade by refugees and orang asli mothers, giving them a source of income and a sense of empowerment.
Sydney added that the issue of ocean plastic pollution is often entangled with the topic of waste management. For instance, remote islands or communities are often affected by plastic pollution as they may not have the proper bins to recycle their waste. Moreover, basic necessities such as food and water are sent to their islands in plastic packages because they help preserve the items.
“These people are not as privileged as those living in big cities who are able to buy greener things from the local store. In future, people should tackle the issue of how to get these resources to them without the use of plastic packaging, ” said Sydney.
Education is key
Currently, the Sea Monkey Project creates plastic recycling machines based on another social enterprise Precious Plastic’s open source blueprints. The machines are then placed on a remote island or rainforest for the communities living there to recycle their plastic waste.
But recycling may not be the best method of tackling plastic pollution in oceans, said Sydney.Rulers and sea turtle necklace pendants made by upcycling ocean waste.
“The thing is, recycling isn’t the answer. Education is, ” she said.
For years now, the Sea Monkey Project has been actively teaching people of all ages about plastic pollution through interactive educational workshops and speaking engagements.
Being the spokesperson, Sydney feels that nothing beats the testimony of someone who has experienced the horrors of ocean plastic pollution firsthand.
Prior to the pandemic and the movement control order, Sydney and the rest of the Sea Monkeys – as they call themselves – would go out and hold events or workshops.
“In workshops, we get to take people through the whole process of how to make a turtle necklace, which lets us really interact and educate them.
“In my opinion, hands-on workshops are a really effective form of education for children, ” said Sydney.Indi surrounded by plastic waste on a beach in Tioman Island.
What’s encouraging is that some of the children that they have taught come back and visit the Sea Monkey Project’s booths at other events because they want to be more involved.
Confident in the future generation, Sydney feels that it’s incredible knowing that these young children, from the tender age of four, are keen to participate and make a positive impact for our oceans.
“The more you’re educated about an issue, the more you can do to address it. And it starts small, like using a metal straw or a reusable bag, but you will eventually get better at wanting to make a change, ” she added.
Through their social media, the Sea Monkey Project always portrays an upbeat and fun attitude despite dealing with such a pressing matter.
“Not all our messages are happy, but we want to always stay optimistic because kids won’t listen to you if you’re all sad, ” she said.
Nonetheless, Sydney’s message is this: we can all make a change, no matter how small it is.