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On Water: Blue Economy

On Water: Blue Economy

Mar 1, 2024

Malaysian-Brit Tom Peacock-Nazil and his girlfriend, now wife, Brazilian Pamela Correia were spending one of their most idyllic afternoons on pristine “paradise-like” Sunrise Beach in the Island of Ko Lipe in Thailand. They loved it so much that they decided to go back the next morning. What Tom and Pamela witnessed there led to the founding of non-profit organisation (NGO) Seven Clean Seas (SCS), an ocean cleanup organisation based in Singapore.
An overnight storm had washed over enormous masses of plastic.

“There was a huge floating patch of plastic in the water just where we were swimming yesterday,” recalls Tom. “I don’t think I’ve seen a bigger contrast in life. The place went from this paradise to literally a world of plastic pollution. It was a really eye-opening moment.”

The couple decided then and there sitting amidst the damaged environment that they would set out to create some awareness on the situation of marine pollution once they got back to Singapore, which the finance professionals made their home in 2013.

SCS began as a beach cleanup before transforming into a corporate social responsibility (CSR) venture that worked with large companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Netflix and Amazon Web Services. Today, it is a marine conservation and social organisation with a full-fledged Materials Recovery Facility in Indonesia and 110 employees across its offices in Bintan, Batam, Bali and Singapore. They were the first organisation to set up a plastic offsetting business, and one of the first to factor fair employment into the economic model of waste management— all of its employees are paid industry minimum wage, work on a five-day week basis, and enjoy equal benefits as the legal employment sector.

In 2022, SCS entered into a partnership with Thai Buddhist temple Wat Chak Daeng to introduce a low-tech, low-cost, and scalable River Plastic Recovery technology, that is powered almost entirely by renewable energy. This HIPPO or High Impact Plastic Pollution remOver automates the collection of plastic from the Chao Phraya River to stem its flow into the ocean. SCS is also looking to expand to the Philippines.

In November last year, Tom, on behalf of SCS, won first place in the 2023 edition of Blue Water Heroes Awards—part of ONE°15 Marina’s annual marine conservation event, Blue Water EduFest.

The avid diver now lives and works out of Uluwatu in Bali with wife Pamela and their two-and-a-half year old son Jack, and travels the region to build the organisation with their third co-founder, fellow Brit Ben Moody, a Biological Sciences graduate, whom he met in Singapore.

To date and counting, SCS has recovered two million kg of ocean plastic, and is committed to recovering 10 million kg by 2025 from the top seven worst plastic polluted countries in the world.

Tell us about your connection to Southeast Asia.
I’m a British citizen, but my father is from Malaysia, so growing up, I used to spend pretty much every summer holiday in his hometown in Gopeng in the state of Perak. My grandad was a farmer—my uncle has taken over now—and I would go with him everyday and just hang out with the cows; my cousins and I would run around catching geckos. For a kid
growing up in England, staying in a kampung in Malaysia was the most exotic thing in the world. It did instil a lot of connection to nature for me and it’s always been a big part of my identity personally.

How has the switch from the corporate world to conservation been for you?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a zoologist above anything else—Steve Irwin and David Attenborough were my absolute heroes. I had this notion in my head that I would go to Africa and work in a safari. Then I grew up and ended up getting into the cycle of making money. After graduating in International Business Studies from Nottingham Trent University in the UK, I worked in the corporate world for about 10 years. I dotted around in recruitment, shipping and finance industries—I was never really happy in any of it. I used to literally count down days as percentages as the week went on, which was super toxic.

Today, I work three times as hard on a weekly basis, but not once have I woken up and felt like I didn’t want to go to work. It’s wonderful to see what we have built and the rivers we have cleaned. So yeah, I’m one of the very fortunate ones that most people probably hate because I actually really enjoy my work.

How did SCS’ presence in Indonesia come about?
Our first project was actually supposed to be in Desaru, Malaysia, with German company Einhorn, which manufactures their vegan condoms there. They hired us to offset their plastic consumption—required by medical grade in their packaging—by clearing ocean plastic from the waters. We did a few events successfully, but then COVID-19 hit, our
revenue stream stopped, and Malaysia was completely inaccessible to us.

Then we got into a discussion with Andrew Dickson, founder of eco-haven, Bintan’s Nikoi and Cempedak Islands, who was forced to furlough quite a bit of his staff due to the pandemic. Pamela and I were still working fulltime and we had about $60,000 within the business bank account, so we decided to employ those staff under SCS to do environmental cleanup on a daily basis. The plan was to leverage that internationally to generate funding to grow the organisation. There was absolutely no guarantee that this was going to work. Worst case scenario, we would have given people employment through a very difficult kind of time of their life. We were lucky to get a US$100,000 grant from Microsoft to build projects. We had three teams in Bintan, we set up our first charity, a yayasan, there—it all happened rather organically. Our Indonesia General Manager Siti Kusmiati—she is my absolute hero—held the fort throughout, working with us remotely. I got to go visit the projects and meet her for the first time only after the pandemic.

What are your thoughts on the role of capitalism in the NGO space?
There are good things and there’s a lot of bad things about it, but the bottom line is we live in a capitalist society. It is unrealistic to think that we can solve the big problems we are facing today in a way that is not in synergy with the way the world works. It’s not enough to have an NGO that creates incredible impact, it needs to be able to scale—one
cannot rely on philanthropy in perpetuity to cover that cost. SCS is in a unique position where it builds, owns and operates its own projects. Today, we are equally an environmental- and social-impact organisation that promotes fair employment. That is something that I never saw coming, to be honest—it’s just a result of the way we decided to build
the organisation.

What about sustainability in your own life?
It has been an interesting journey. The biggest challenge for us has been around bringing up a child. It’s embarrassing to admit, but we only lasted a couple of months with reusable diapers—it’s really hard with both Pamela and I in the business and managing a child. So that was a definite failure. I’m a true believer that we are not going to change this world with 5 per cent of people being perfectly sustainable; we will change the world when 90 per cent of the people are conscious and make better decisions. That collective force of change is way more powerful than perfection.

The original article was published on the March/ April 24 issue of Longitude, ONE°15 Marina’s Club magazine. Read it here.