Origin Story Interview W/ Karsten Hirsch, Plastic Fischer

Origin Story Interview W/ Karsten Hirsch, Plastic Fischer

Brighter Future

 / 

Dec 7, 2022

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #savetheocean #cleanrivers #riverplastic #PlasticPollution #OceanConservation #EnvironmentalImpact #CleanOceans #WasteManagement

Brighter Future

Today, we have the pleasure of talking with Karsten Hirsch, who, along with Georg Baunach and Moritz Schulz, co-founded Plastic Fischer.

Karsten, thank you for joining us today. It would be great if you could tell us a little about you and how this journey started.

I grew up in Germany but spent time with my parents in the Netherlands. We had a little sailing boat there, which is why I spent a lot of time on the water and fell in love with it. After graduating from law school, I went on holiday to Vietnam with two of my best friends. We had an apartment next to the Mekong Delta, where we saw huge amounts of plastic pollution flowing into the ocean, and that's when we decided to start a company to stop that.

Have you always been interested in sustainability or the environment growing up, or is this something that has since developed?

I wouldn't say I was an environmentalist, but now that I have founded Plastic Fischer, I believe I am an advocate for this, and my perspective has changed. So, I would say I'm an environmentalist now. Being in Vietnam, seeing the pollution, and working in this field for nearly four years now have changed my perspective. I have worked with a lot of people in this area, and your thinking starts to change with education.

As they say, knowledge is power. Educating yourself and understanding the issues would have given you a solid foundation to build upon. Do you remember when you had the idea to start Plastic Fischer?

What we're doing now was a wild ride. When we returned from Vietnam, we did not stop talking about what we saw there, and we couldn’t find any organisations that focused on rivers to prevent ocean plastic. We founded the company four months after being in Vietnam, around April 2019, and I quit my job at the law firm to go all in and move to Indonesia to develop the simple idea of stopping river plastic from polluting the planet’s oceans.

That's quite a change in career after all those years of study. So, what would you say is your core motivation to do this every day?

Well, the motivation has not changed. We want to stop destroying the planet’s oceans with plastic and halt the loss of biodiversity. That is why we founded Plastic Fischer. We want to protect ocean marine life from the plastic coming through rivers.

What motivates me is the team's commitment and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Companies are starting to support us. Some companies and competitors are changing to more low-tech solutions. Several are even using our technology and are copying our approach successfully. We decided to do it open source because our core goal is to stop ocean plastic, whatever it takes. It motivates me to see that there is now some science behind change, maybe starting with what tech is used to stop it, and companies are jumping to support it. Nevertheless, it is a major problem that we are tackling, so we need more individuals and organisations to finance our operations, because I am not paying my 65+ local employees with compliments.

That's a somewhat unique mindset: even though your competitors copy your ideas, you are almost encouraged by this. Was this always your mindset, or did you also grow into this?

We got ripped off pretty badly by someone in Bali. We developed the TrashBoom in Indonesia and planned to collaborate with him. We got there, shared all our ideas and thoughts, and developed a plan to expand with him in Indonesia, but he just took our ideas and moved forward alone.

We were then thinking, okay, what could happen next? The World Economic Forum shared a post about us, and we got so many requests. Then we thought, okay, we cannot be everywhere, but how can we make it as easy as possible for others to take action on plastic pollution? As we worked so hard on this for months, we couldn't allow it to be ripped off by someone else, so we decided to publish it as open source to make it as easy as possible to copy.

For me, The Ocean Cleanup is just a marketing tool that costs a lot of money. Society feels bad about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, because we can see it, but only 1% of the plastic in our oceans is actually on the surface, and only a fraction of that is in that particular garbage patch. Most of the plastic pollution is already on the ground and it keeps coming from rivers. So, before going to the oceans and sending vessels, crews, and expensive ships to clean up, you must stop the flow of pollution first. I'm not saying this because I need us to succeed; it is not about me or Plastic Fischer. The problem has to be solved. I don’t care if it is us or someone else, but the money has to be spent efficiently, and I think Plastic Fischer is pretty close to maximum efficiency when it comes to value (i.e., social and environmental impact) for money spent.  

It makes sense to stop plastic from entering the ocean through the rivers by first blocking it there. How long have you been living in Indonesia?

After founding the company, Moritz and I lived in Indonesia for more than half a year—until Covid sent us back home. We did it all in a rather unconventional way: First, we founded the company, then we moved to the place of operations to develop a technology right there. We wanted to try it out in the location where we want it to operate so we wouldn’t be surprised if we developed a solution and it did not work. We saw that happening to other organisations, but not just in the plastic pollution field. Some companies would build something in their studio, lab or workshop and then figure out that it doesn't work in Southeast Asia, for example. And by that point, they’ve spent millions on something that doesn’t work.

You already mentioned that no one else was doing this when you got started. That must have been very exciting, knowing that your ideas were original and offering real solutions to the problem. What gave you the drive and motivation to believe you could succeed, and how did you begin to get Plastic Fischer off the ground?

There was nothing out there. We saw no one doing plastic clean-ups in rivers, and we knew we had to do something. I mean, today, it's common sense. Luckily, more and more companies are now collecting plastic from rivers.

We went to one of the world's most polluted rivers to team up with the Indonesian Army, which was and is in charge of cleaning up the Citarum River. We said we wanted to do something, and they told us there were a lot of white guys saying they wanted to do something, but they just took a picture and left. We showed up daily, working in the dirty area, picking up waste with the Army, knowing nothing about what was happening, and committed to figuring out a solution.

When we developed the TrashBoom and saw it work in one of the most polluted rivers in the world, we knew we had something in our hands that we could work with and easily scale. We achieved our goal of developing a technology that could be replicated anywhere in the world using globally available materials.

How did people react to what you were trying to achieve?

Well, we live in a very polluted environment. So, it's not like we started doing something, and then it's all clean. People are still curious about what we are doing because it's extremely polluted where we work.

The guy who ripped us off is a celebrity now, a superhero in Bali. He gets lots of support for the work that he's doing. I'm not jealous of him, but I feel like the people on the ground who are working with us deserve the same credit. They're not working on the lovely island of Bali, where all the tourists come and give them all their attention. Instead, they work in locations where no tourist will ever show up. They get laughed at for the job that they're doing, and this really annoys me. They deserve a lot of respect for the work they are doing, and I hope this will change someday. I get a lot of respect for what we're doing, but I'm sitting at home trying to get funding, not in the field doing it. I would love it if more people respected the honest work that our people are doing on the ground.

Social media is a great tool when used correctly and as a platform to spread the word about your work. But I understand, it also costs time and money that could be used more effectively elsewhere in the project…

You're right. Currently, we have no marketing team, but we are creating an impact. I understand you need marketing to reach a broader audience—however, it should always be impact first, not marketing. We should challenge pictures and videos that go viral and not only trust clicks and likes. There is a lot of greenwashing going on because of successful marketing.

Were there times when you took a different path or direction with Plastic Fischer than originally planned?

Yeah, all the time. We started in Indonesia with a water wheel that didn't work, so we made fences. We started with an idea to sell plastic bottles to finance the clean up operation, but that didn't work either, because you cannot finance the operations with only the resources you're collecting. So, in 2019, we came up with the idea of plastic credits, similar to carbon credits. In 2021, Verra, one of the biggest standard setters for carbon credits, launched the plastic credit standard. That was proof that there was some traction happening in the market.

You seem to be able to come up with ideas and solutions to problems that actually work. Many others are probably envious of this ability.

Yeah, but I'm not a genius. It was mainly common sense, logic, a lot of discussions, and just spending time there and watching. We could not believe that no one else was out there, doing it. It is really about doing it.

For example, I was at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in May. It was so frustrating to see how many innovative solutions are simply not implemented at scale. So much effort is put into creating a solution, but there’s very little support to then get those ideas implemented in a way that will really make an impact.

If we talk about waste management, it must be done at scale. I'm not willing to do it at the same scale for the rest of my life if we don't get the support needed. So, we have to find the technology to solve the problem and then scale it. I had many discussions with other innovators at the forum, and they were experiencing the same issue. They saw a problem, and they found a solution, but no one was willing to help them implement it at the level required to make a difference.

So, to continue your hard work, you need the backing to scale up to make a bigger impact. As with any startup, you must have learnt a lot to get to the stage you are at now. With Plastic Fischer, what was your biggest failure, and what did it teach you?

Well, there was a lot of trial and error with the TrashBooms we developed, but that was not the biggest failure; that was just the process of getting there. The biggest shock moment for us was being ripped off by the guy in Bali.

So many companies are trying to solve this same problem, but at some point, it's actually more about them getting money or fame. There are so many egos out there. I spent one and a half years trying to collaborate and then figured out that we were better off doing it ourselves. Everyone wants their slice of the attention we get for our work. Everyone wants to be named the one who solves the problem, but no one can solve this problem here alone, and this is something most in the sector people don't understand.

I was talking to someone who is doing great work in India. At 22 years old, she invented a waste segregation solution that can segregate 200 tonnes of unsorted household waste daily. Now she's running a multimillion-dollar revenue company. Still, she is unhappy with this because she is not implementing at the scale it takes to really make a difference. And this is the situation that could be faced by Plastic Fischer or any other company that is trying to solve this problem. There’s no collaboration or real understanding of the problem.

So, scaling up these innovative ideas and solutions is a universal problem. Being so dedicated to the project, what sacrifices have you made since starting?

I have less time for hanging out with friends and doing sports—that is it, really. But overall, it's hard. Not being able to switch off for some days or even a week is a normal sacrifice if you are committed to starting a company, but this is sometimes exhausting.

But I'm really happy now, and I wouldn't change this job for anything else. That said, I won't do this forever at this scale. If we do not collect tens of thousands of tons in a few years, it is not creating enough impact to justify the energy the team puts in on a daily basis.  

So, we're currently in a very turbulent time, with a pandemic, war, and climate collapse; how do you see or envision the future?

That's a big question. I was really inspired by UpLink, the innovation platform from the World Economic Forum. The World Economic Forum is like a cosmos of big companies, rich people, and influential people doing their business and trying to align it with current needs. Then there are the innovators from UpLink, who have a company, startup or NGO that they’ve founded to solve these big problems. They have passion and energy. That whole experience gave me hope that many people are trying to change something.

There has to be an “A-ha!” moment from the big boys and girls to make these changes that allow innovators and problem-solvers to scale up and solve the problems; otherwise, they will talk for ten years, nothing will be achieved, and we will mess up the entire planet.

Last year, in Germany, a whole city got flushed away, and many people died. We also had our first hurricane or tornado last month. People now realise it's not just happening in Southeast Asia. It could also be happening here, and it will get worse. So, the question is, how much worse does it have to get before it clicks with people that things have to change? I think there is hope, and when I envision the future, I believe in the good and the people. I hope that the most influential people in the world—those who are responsible for setting the direction we take—are forced to do something different so that we can get our act together, but I'm not sure.

The world is certainly changing a lot more rapidly than people anticipated. When you are no longer on this Earth, how would you like people to look back upon you and your journey?

I have never thought about this. I don't want to be a celebrity or be known for anything. I don't bullshit people. I think what people value about me is that if they ask me a question, they get an honest answer, even though it's sometimes uncomfortable. So, I think that's enough for me. I don't believe that I'm the one who will change the world of plastic, and I don't want to be known for that. Plastic Fischer can be known for that.

Do you have any advice for your younger self or an entrepreneur starting out?

I'm happy with where I am now. I’m happy with who I am, what I do, and with whom I do it. So, I don't think I would give the younger me any advice. I studied law for seven years, which was a waste of time; however, if I hadn't studied law, I would not have founded Plastic Fischer.

To any younger entrepreneurs, I would say that I'm still learning so much. I think the cool thing about founding a company is you learn so much very quickly, but you have to be aware that it will be really stressful. A lot of things can happen, and you need, in my opinion, to have the right team or partner with you.

“Sunk cost” is one of the most important terms I have learnt since founding Plastic Fischer. It basically means that just because you’ve invested in something—be that time, money, energy, or even love in a relationship—doesn't mean you have to stick with it. The cost has already been sunk into it. If you’re not happy, don’t continue to invest just because you’ve already put so much in. For example, I don't have to be a lawyer just because I studied law.

If there was a message that you could share with the world, what would that be?

In order to solve the problem of plastic pollution, we have to seriously scale up this solution. Otherwise, we're just a nice startup with a good idea that didn't do anything significant in the field. Ultimately, we either want to solve a problem or we want to be in the media. We need people and organisations to help us solve part of the problem. So, please reach out to me if you want to support us.  

Generally speaking, we need to consume and pollute less, design products that are more circular, and push proven innovations or organisations that are committed to solving global problems. Making our waste streams traceable will help close the gaps around illegal activities in the world of dumping and exporting waste. So, maybe my answer to the world is to hold the waste industry and the producers accountable.

Thank you so much for talking with us today, Karsten. What you have achieved is incredible! To go from witnessing the problem first-hand in the Mekong river to founding a company with solutions to that problem is a massive achievement. It is clear that it has taken a lot of hard work, dedication and a leap of faith. We wish you all the very best in the future and hope that the scaling up required becomes a reality.

If you would like to find out more about Karsten and Plastic Fischer, you can find them at: www.plasticfischer.com.

To stay up to date with our latest content and interviews with amazing people like Karsten, subscribe to the Brighter Future newsletter.

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