How Patagonia is tackling the plastic problem – National Geographic

Seeds of change

Later that afternoon, we drove a few miles down the road to meet a graduate of the programme. Elsa lives alone on a small patch of land overlooking the Reloncaví Estuary with strawberries growing in the garden and soaring mountains overhead. Her house is humble: two small rooms patchworked together with a wood-burning stove in the middle and a large wooden loom where she does her work on the side. But her spirit is huge. She gave us hugs, she made pastries, we passed maté around. She showed us how to weave, how to spin the wool, how she collects it from local shepherds, treats it and dyes it by hand, then threads it together to create bright patterns of green, blue and orange, which are turned into saddle bags, ponchos and, now, sheaths for sunglasses too.

“My boys,” as she calls the shepherds, “helped me learn to appreciate my work.” In a little over a year, Elsa has gone from lacking in confidence, ashamed of her art and giving it away, despite needing the money, to selling across the region, supporting herself and teaching other women in her community how to set up cottage industries of their own.

That night, we travelled up the bright turquoise waters of the Puelo River to the Karün Lodge, two small cabins on the edge of the water with a wood-fired hot tub and wraparound decks overlooking the flow. There are plans to turn it into a guest lodge, one day, a place for customers to come and see first-hand where their money is going. 

But we were there to meet the neighbours: Jose Miguel Jara, who’s used his seed capital to invest in a boat to take tourists on fly-fishing trips. Rony, a shepherd who lives high in the mountains and wants to show visitors his old trails. Pato, his son, who makes homemade knives out of recycled chainsaws and is setting up a workshop to make cases for Karün. We visited their farms, pigs, dogs and kittens roaming free. We sat together by the fire at night, swapping stories and drinking red wine. They told us of the difficulty of their lives, how they’ve struggled to raise their kids in such an isolated spot. How much it means to have someone visit, to have someone care. 

How far could this be scaled? What about other disenfranchised communities around the world where poverty and pollution are a problem? We stayed up late into the night talking about plastic consumption in Asia and the West. Can the model be applied to cities? Can it help alleviate urban poverty or even homelessness? If we can transform waste into opportunities, and opportunities into prosperity, then the two billion tonnes we throw out every year become two billion sparks of inspiration and innovation. 

It’s already happening of course, Right now, around the world, there are companies that make skateboards out of recycled ocean plastic and others that produce designer clothes out of landfill. There are people offering technologies for free online that can transform used household plastic into jewellery, crockery and accessories. Youngsters are inventing machines to clean up our oceans, chemists are creating plastic bags that don’t leak pollutants into the food chain. There’s a change happening, a new wind blowing around the world; in the end, that new wind is what this is really all about. Because there’s another reason Karün uses sunglasses as a vehicle for change — and it’s perhaps the most important reason of all: you see the world through them. 

And that comes back to the central question. Right now, we’re coming to the end of an old story. For more than 200 years, since the dawn of the industrial age, human beings have seen themselves as masters of the planet. That mindset spurred exponential growth and remarkable advances in technology. But that old story has become unstable. The question is: can we turn the page?

“Sunglasses aren’t going to change the world,” Thomas said as the fire died down on our last night. “But if we can prove business can be done in a different way, then we can be a symbol of a new way of looking at the world.”  

Follow @aaronmwriter

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Follow us on social media 

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Flipboard


« »