In the waters where the South and North Atlantic oceans meet, between Brazil and Guyana, marine biologist Rachel Labbé-Bellas had a revelation: She could effectively reduce single-use plastic pollution.
The ship Labbé-Bellas was on set sail to offer researchers a closer look at microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic floating in the ocean. Prior to the expedition, Labbé-Bellas had focused solely on marine life, but something changed when she saw the enormity of the single-use-plastic problem.
“When I saw the impact of microplastics, I thought to myself, ‘This is now going to be my topic of research or my passion forever.’ ”
These plastics have been found in food and in the atmosphere, which has raised consumer health organizations’ red flags, as well as those of researchers seeking to put an end to the problem.
“I knew there had to be a physical infrastructure to stop the single-plastic boom. Even marine biologists were using plastic water bottles at conferences. I’ve never drawn stuff, but I woke up one morning, and I literally envisioned this water station.”
She named her project the Green Stop and designed stations to look like stop signs. Having done her market research, Labbé-Bellas targeted Osheaga festival organizer Evenko for her first pitch.
Evenko got on board and linked Green Stop with National Bank.
National Bank used the top of the Green Stop kiosks to display a bank logo while distributing refillable water bottles to festivalgoers.
Labbé-Bellas worked with the Evenko team to customize three water-refill stations to fit festival needs. She then brought the designs to CollectivLab’s team of engineers and designers to turn her vision into a reality. The end result was three water stations equipped with six taps that directly connected to a city water source.
Recent research from scientists at the State University of New York in Fredonia found that 90 per cent of popular plastic water bottle brands contain microplastics. Research also supports the idea that refilling these bottles with clean water results in consumers using those plastics more than once, which is what many festival attendees do to avoid purchasing more than one $5 bottle of water.
But, as Labbé-Bellas says, “the research has just begun. For the time being it’s best to avoid single-use plastic altogether from touching food or our drinks until more science is done to identify what actually are safe microplastic ingestion levels.”
More than 42,000 litres of water flowed from The Green Stop stations during the three-day Osheaga festival. Using flow meters, Labbé-Bellas estimates that her stations supplanted 85,000 plastic water bottles. She also estimates that her water solution saved more than 500 plastic garbage bags from being used.
Osheaga’s success led festival organizers to invite her to ÎleSoniq and Piknic Électronik, where she estimates having saved an additional 49,000 bottles of water from being used. In total, Labbé-Bellas’s water stations prevented 134,000 plastic bottles of water from being used at all three festivals.
“Amazingly, everything worked perfectly,” Labbé-Bellas says.
Labbé-Bellas managed to raise $51,000 through a recent crowdfunding campaign. She was also named a finalist in this year’s Aqua Hacking, an annual competition to draw attention to water safety and pollution issues.
In an attempt to move beyond a seasonal business, she’s refining her design to work indoors and has her sights set on malls and indoor conferences.
“First, I have to figure out a way to cut back on costs,” she says, noting the Evenko kiosks cost her $25,000 to build.
“I need to find a way to create a more uniform and less customized unit. I want to create 20 units, and right now I have three,” she says.
Encouraged by the success this summer, Labbe-Bellas said she hopes the water refill stations will soon be used in both inside and outdoor events.
“Montreal is a supportive community. If you want to start a business, ask for help. Don’t go and take out a hefty business loan; see what you can do within your community first. People want to help. Look for it. It exists,” she says.